Is your content marketing meeting your strategic goals? Does it answer your prospects’ needs, as well as attracting search engine attention? Do you have an easy-to-follow plan that your team can all work from? If not, the way you’re actually planning your content could be the root of your content strategy woes.
A well-planned content calendar can help you make your content creation process more productive, cost-effective, and scalable. But what should you include, and how should you set it out? If this question (or one like it) is at the front of your mind, you’ve come to the right place.
Here’s our step-by-step guide to making sure your content calendar has everything you need. Find out how many of these you’re already doing, and discover our top tips to make things even better!
Hold up — what is a content calendar?
In case you’re new to the concept, here’s a quick explainer:
In order to keep up with their fast-paced publishing cycles, newspapers and magazines keep an editorial calendar or a schedule of who is writing what — and when.
Imagine how chaotic everything would be without it: a scramble for subject matter, editorial approval, missed deadlines, and late or poorly written articles. It's an editor's nightmare. By using an editorial calendar, however, they can keep track of what’s coming up well in advance, ensuring a smoother, more organised, more productive publishing process.
Of course, in the age of digital content creation and brand storytelling, the newsroom isn’t the only place experiencing these editorial pressures. Many of the same challenges keeping those editors awake at night might also be stressing you out. (You can add worrying over lacklustre results to that list!) What’s a busy marketing manager with KPIs to hit to do?
A clear, easy-to-use content marketing calendar adopted (and adapted) from the newsroom is the answer. Here's how to create one.
8 steps to creating a content calendar
Assess your campaign goals
Review your buyer personas (and how you can reach them across the buyer’s journey)
Undertake competitor research
Conduct SEO keyword research
Plan how you are going to distribute and promote your content
Format and populate your editorial calendar with content recommendations that bring all these findings together
Carry out an internal review to enable collaboration and make sure the calendar is aligned with your campaign’s goals
This article also has advice on:
How to develop your content calendar in the future
The content editing/approval workflow
An example content calendar.
How to create your sales/marketing content editorial calendar
1. Reviewing business objectives and setting SMART goals
Everything starts with your business goals. If you know sales needs to close three deals a month to hit its revenue targets, and you know that it typically closes fifty percent of sales-qualified leads (SQLs), you can start to work backwards, creating a firm foundation on which to base your calendar.
Let’s stick with this example. You need to deliver six SQLs. Looking at your data, that means your marketing needs to generate, on average, 18 marketing-qualified leads (MQLs) every month. Over the last year, how many leads has your marketing generated?
Perhaps it hasn’t generated very many — but you can see that traffic is holding you back, not conversation rates. Search-optimised content might be your first port of call.
Or perhaps you’re getting lots of traffic to your site but it just isn’t converting. Do you need more compelling downloads or more inventive conversion paths?
Perhaps your site is inundated with traffic and conversions, but the leads being generated just aren’t the right fit for your business. You might need to re-examine the subjects your content is exploring and create a new topic cluster that better speaks to your buyer personas.
The point is, none of this is possible if you haven’t reassessed your business goals and taken a look at the bigger picture. Doing this will mean you can actually set meaningful objectives (and SMART goals) for your marketing and content.
Whether this is driving blog subscriptions, generating leads, helping sales to nurture prospects or something else besides, this should be the goal you're working towards.
Sometimes, content creators might fall into the trap of thinking they have to generate articles simply because they have a blog. That’s getting things the wrong way round. You have a blog (or you create content), so what are the strategic goals you want to use it to achieve?
2. Align the goal with your buyer personas and the buyer's journey
Your buyer personas are the people you’re trying to speak to through your content. If you think about how differently you communicate with different kinds of people every day, it should be pretty clear just how important it is that you review your personas when planning your content strategy and creating a content calendar.
For one, it will provide strong indicators of the form you should be writing in — articles, case studies, how-to guides, listicles, and so on.
Maybe your lead is considering buying and wants material to download and consider at their leisure.
Maybe you needn’t write anything at all (do they respond better to video marketing and infographics, for example?)
If your goal is lead capture, this will also reveal the kinds of resources you could test as hooks.
Another point to consider is your persona’s reading habits. If you’re looking to meet their product research needs, where do they go first? Should you prioritise social media to broadcast new developments, or will they go straight to YouTube looking for a demo video? (Here are some tips on adding detail when you create buyer personas.)
"Finally, decide what topics/content your buyer personas will be interested in and value."
How can you align these with your value propositions and company stories to create more engaging, personalised narrative content? This is an effective way of writing about the subjects your audience is interested in, in a distinctive way that will help to elevate your content above that of your competitors.
MY TOP TIP: At this stage, it’s important to step back and make an objective review. It’s easy to create a calendar that 'sounds right' or that you can imagine being effective. Cross-reference this against the personas. Better yet, put yourself in your personas' shoes. Would that article benefit you? Are you harnessing the power of storytelling? Why would you read it over the millions of similar articles already published?
3. Check out your competitors’ content
It’s well worth taking a look to see what your rivals are doing in terms of content. What have they done that works really well and that your personas would benefit from? What doesn’t work?
A quick comparison will give you plenty of ideas for your own channels. It’s a way to boost your creativity when you’re stuck for inspiration, but also gets you into the mindset of both customers and competitors.
Competitor research isn’t just about creative prompts either. It can also deliver hard data that you can use to inform your content planning. Here are three ways you could try this:
Using a tool like BuzzSumo to analyse ‘shareability’. If you see that a competitor has written lots of articles on your chosen topic, input the URLs to see just how shareable those ideas proved to be (and where they were most 'successful').
Reviewing your competitors' social channels will highlight public responses/comments to shared content. Use them to gauge the level of response but also what kinds of questions are being asked by readers.
Analysing competitors to get a good idea of what keywords they're targeting and how to ‘skyscrape’ their content. 'Skyscraping' means writing a longer, better article that trumps the original, giving you a competitive advantage in the SERPs (search engine results pages).
Obviously, be wary of producing anything too similar to your competitors’ content. However, if you can take an idea and do it better (i.e. longer, more detailed and more valuable), go for it!
4. Research suitable keywords
While your priority should be to create content that will engage your readers, offer them value, or encourage deeper thinking, keywords are still relevant and should be used where natural and appropriate to provide greater organic visibility and search relevancy to the content in your calendar.
"Nowadays, Google rewards authoritative sites that appear to have plenty of relevant information about a given topic."
Creating a ‘topic cluster’ that links together blog content on a particular subject will make it easier for search engines to see how your content interrelates. Include the cluster or ‘pillar’ topic on your content calendar and make creating a strong cluster (that’s relevant to your prospects) one of your content goals.
There’s no point creating great content if no one sees it. You need to think about, and plan, how you’ll bring readers to the blog you’ve spent hours carefully crafting. Don’t just rely on SEO, but broadcast the existence of new content on social media, emails to subscribers, etc. A targeted social or email strategy could be the lynchpin supporting your content calendar’s success.
"When planning for distribution, consider the buyers’ journey."
You might have designed an article to work as part of a sales nurture sequence to specific types of leads, for example. Pop-ups, meanwhile, are another format that has a time and a place (they could be perfect for some site visitors depending on their buyers’ journey stage, but deeply irritating to others).
If your site uses chatbots, make sure they’re recommending your content to readers asking the relevant questions. Delivered in this way, your content will come across as being just what the visitor is looking for to answer their question or solve their problem.
6. Draw together this information into a calendar format
Equipped with all these insights, goals and learnings, what remains is to pull your findings together into a series of recommended content. This is the step where it can really pay to have someone with an editor’s eye (or a storyteller’s tongue) on your marketing team.
It’s one thing to research the components you need to make your content calendar effective. It’s another thing to translate those findings into valuable content that balances your commercial objectives with the needs and expectations of your target audience. (Need a hand? Check out our Content Audit offer and leave everything to us.)
The editorial calendar should be clearly set out and easy to access so that your team has no excuse to disregard it. Depending on the software you use, tasks can often be integrated between calendars and your project management platform of choice. (You might want to create your content calendar in Google Sheets or Excel and sync to HubSpot, for instance.)
Next, think deadlines and resourcing. Consider when your articles will need to be published, as well as the dates by which first drafts should be completed. Who will be responsible for creating the content? When will they need to be briefed?
"Allow plenty of time, if you can, as you might be juggling extra stages too. Interviewing a subject matter expert is a great way to make content more authoritative and relevant, but it’s diary dependent!"
You also need to dig into – and list – your format, contents and defined goals. What form will the content take? Have you linked to any important resources, and does the calendar state the aim (how the content should help the reader) and objective (what you want the content to achieve) of each entry?
MY TOP TIP: Try to keep your calendar comprehensive but easy to follow. Try using tags (or drop-down options) for repeated comments, such as a series of pieces with the same goal. Tactics like this will make using your calendar day-to-day a simpler, more repeatable process (avoiding the situation where it gets bloated with notes or, conversely, lacks necessary information). Once you know your goals, it will be even easier to decide what your tags should be.
7. Review internally for feedback and sign-off
You wouldn’t create an article or a broader marketing strategy without getting internal approval or at least a second pair of eyes on it, and the same should apply to your content calendar.
We maintain a rigorous second pair of eyes policy across all aspects of our work, and when it comes to our content calendars, this serves us well in two key ways.
Firstly, it ensures that the calendar created really does align with the goals we identified in step one. You know how it is – often a piece of work can start with good intentions but become derailed or reiterated so much that it doesn’t actually hit the brief anymore. This check ensures that all the ideas you and your team have pulled together will deliver on the campaign’s goals and, ultimately, drive the growth of the business, however directly or indirectly.
Secondly, this check is a great way of building and maintaining internal buy-in from the other stakeholders. If you know your calendar is sales-oriented and charged with helping sales to nurture and close more business, make sure the sales director or manager has the opportunity to give it the seal of approval. Collaboration can only be a good thing.
It’s also a great point at which they can feed back more specifically on your recommended content, or even contribute ideas of their own. The result is a content calendar that has been given the best possible chance of success.
Once the content marketing calendar is up and running, you will find yourself in a much stronger position to start researching, writing, shooting and recording great content pieces.
"If you're a one-man band or the kind of content manager who still likes to get their hands dirty (amen!) then the calendar will become your lifeline."
If you’re creating content for sales and/or marketing teams, the calendar lets you share vital information, align goals and aim for greater efficiency. (Getting everyone involved, or at least sharing the information, means your sales team knows what content is available for use.
It could also help you gain new, more relevant content ideas from a wider pool of contributors.) All too often, there can be friction between sales and marketing teams who don’t feel they are working together. This is a great place to start aligning your activities.
Developing the content calendar in the future
Adjust or reschedule proposed titles based on resources, feedback and growth. Our ongoing content development process looks a little like this:
Invite key stakeholders and brainstorm new story/content ideas new story ideas
Write (or assign a story to a writer)
The approval stage: edit and edit some more
Publish the article/content and share via the designated channels
Analyse performance results for data insights
Repeat for incremental growth.
Content calendar example
Content approval workflow: the editing and approval stage
This is an important stage in any content marketing process. Content should always be reviewed before going live. Even the most stringent copywriters will make mistakes from time to time, and while editors are often described as being eagle-eyed, this is, in fact, just a metaphor. (Eagles don’t have much of an eye for typos, anyway.)
As a result, establishing an approval stage between content production and publication helps to maximise accuracy and maintain a healthy working relationship between all parties involved.
To make this stage as efficient as possible, we recommend the following:
1. Define the content approval workflow
Establish who will be writing or creating content and who will be reviewing it. When multiple parties begin editing a piece of work, feedback can get complicated and publication can be unduly delayed, with repercussions as far up as engagement. Too many chefs, as they say. In extreme cases, content production can grind to a halt, limiting the company’s ability to engage with the leads it needs to grow.
2. Work to a common goal
A small but important point. Make sure the person editing the content is familiar with the campaign and its goals. These factors will often influence the way a piece of content grows out, so the more familiar that the editor is with these elements, the fewer questions they should have with the content.
I hope these tips give you a firmer grasp of your content activities going forwards. It really is an exciting area to be involved in.
Taking steps to document and define your editorial process is just one example of how you can improve the smooth implementation of an effective content strategy, fuelling your business growth at this all-important time.
To learn more about planning and implementing content activities across your business, download our free resource, 'The Beginner's Guide to Content Strategy and Implementation', below.