Building Strategy and Managing Content with Editorial Calendars

“Share your tweets on Twitter!” “Share your thoughts on Facebook!” “Share your insights on a blog!” “Pin us on Pinterest!”

“Content is king” is a quote that’s been trotted out, hung up, reused, and overshared since Microsoft’s Bill Gates originally said it back in 1996. Sixteen years later and that simple phrase still holds true for marketers, but it has become somewhat more complicated. It’s not as easy as setting up a Facebook page and watching the revenue skyrocket.

In fact, I submit there isn’t a marketing communicator today who isn’t fretting over what content their company is sharing. Sure, a few may review campaign performances, track leads, or monitor budgets for a little while, but then they go right back to fretting over sharing content.

The content you share becomes your brand. So while content may still be king, the success of your content depends on it being contextually relevant, platform-specific, keyword-optimized, strategically guided, and customized for buyer personas. If you want online marketing success, you need more than a Pinterest account, you need a plan.

I know I am not the only marketing professional who has fielded the following questions from upper management: “Do we need a Twitter? What’s a Twitter, anyway?” The mistake in those questions, of course, is that they start with the channel, not the message or the audience. Having “a Twitter” just for the sake of jumping on the bandwagon isn’t a solid strategy for any communication team, but what’s worse, is finding out that once you get the Twitter account, or the YouTube channel, or the blog, or the Facebook page, now you have a real problem. Now you have to say something, share something, post something. And you need to keep doing it tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. So now you have to fill that pipeline with content, and not just any content, but content that speaks to your brand and is worth your customer’s time. What you share needs to be, well, “sharable.”

Your audience and your channel will dictate how often you need to share some sharable content. But whatever the appropriate time interval is, you need to fill it. What are you going to say today, tomorrow, and next month? The boom of social media and content marketing in the past five years has turned communications and marketing professionals into publishers. Our brands are being delivered in the form of content, and to be successful, we need to think and act like publishers, too.

Enter the editorial calendar.

Technique No. 1: Marketers are now publishers. Publishers plan ahead with editorial calendars.

Former journalists and magazine writers are familiar with editorial calendars, but this is a newer tool for corporate communicators and marketers accustomed to short-term marketing campaigns. However, a good calendar won’t just tell you a story idea and the date it will get published. Today’s numerous channels and SEO-optimized world requires special considerations for effective editorial calendars.

Joe Pulizzi, speaker, author, and founder of the Content Marketing Institute, said in a May 23, 2012,  article that most marketers are failing to find success with their content marketing by “a sheer lack of editorial calendar usage.” Yet, it’s the most useful exercise for producing and publishing valuable content on the numerous platforms that businesses employ today.

How complicated does it need to be? It can be as simple as a spreadsheet, with dates running down one side, and channels and topics in the corresponding rows. For communicators and marketers, the editorial calendar shows the “who, what, where, when, why, and how” of your corporate story. It tells you what key messages you want to share with your audience, how often you are going to share particular topics, what voice and tone you should write in, who will do the writing, and through which channels those messages will be published. This allows for being strategic about both your messages and how you time them. It is easy to post a few great messages on Twitter a few times, but day after day, after day? You need a strategy and a plan, and the editorial calendar is the tool to get you there. Use it.

Tip! Ideally, the marketing professional has created a comprehensive content strategy for all messaging, channels and audiences. The editorial calendar grows from the content strategy, which is part of the overall communication plan and which includes carefully mapped user or buyer personas. There one gains the insight of what topics your audience will respond to and how they prefer to receive their communication from you, thus informing your topics and channels. Even without such a document, communication professionals should have a clear idea of how best to reach their audiences, and the types of messages their companies share.

Technique No. 2: Define Your Calendar’s Purpose to Keep it Bloat-free

At first glance, the calendar’s purpose seems obvious: the above-mentioned “who, what, where, when, why, and how” of your content strategy. However, there are some variables and considerations for those rows and columns that merit exploration. Careful thought about the purpose of your calendar will tell you which variables to fit and which don’t. It is critical that a good editorial calendar be usable and have enough of the right information, but it’s easy to let it get bloated with too much information, so decisions need to be made on how to structure and format your calendar.

It is important to think about the users of the calendar. Ask questions to get at your objectives. Will more than one writer need access to it?  What about the head of marketing—or other teams? If your calendar will be viewed by multiple teams, you will need to make it fairly streamlined and easy to review. The answers to your questions will guide how you build your calendar. For example, are there specific objectives you need to accomplish with your calendar? If tracking the success of each content piece is important, include columns for analytics. If aligning with specific marketing promotions or budgets, include those promotional dates, events and collateral. If integrating a whole brand story is the most important component, be sure to include all various channels and any corresponding marketing pieces. It’s possible that you may need more than one version of the calendar, such as one master calendar, and then a more detailed calendar that breaks out the variables such as analytics, budgets, review processes, and so forth. Think carefully about your objectives and strive to leave out those things that don’t serve your purpose.

Tip! It’s easy to get too many variables on your spreadsheet, which then requires so much scrolling that it renders your calendar nearly unusable. If you can’t read the basics—the information that is most relevant to you and your team— at a glance, then you need to make some decisions. It might help to list all the variables and prioritize them, leaving off the lowest priority items. Less is definitely more when it comes to what should be a functional and easy-to-maintain tool.

Technique No. 3: Curate for a Fresh Mix of Content

Content curation is a hot topic in marketing, thanks to social media and Pinterest. Curation means that you are the filter for all the information out there that your users or buyers might be interested in, and which is relevant to your business. Your job as a curator is to find content users might like and share it with them on your own channels, with appropriate citation. Providing links to stories, inviting users to contribute ideas and sharing media are excellent ways to keep your mix of content fresh, as well as provide a service of relevancy for your users or buyers. Curation is also important to lightening the amount of company-driven topics in your mix of media and channels, and can spark a fresh perspective on the types of content you want to build into your calendar in the future.

Another benefit of content curation is it extends your brand’s “personality” and voice by the addition of different writers and visuals. Of course, the smart marketer picks curated items that are relevant, and makes them “on topic” through discussion and commentary. Another aspect to this technique is to embrace a variety of platforms and media.

Tip! If the idea of content curation is new to you, spend some time on Pinterest to get a good feel for it. On Pinterest, the user creates collections of visual content, grouped into categories. This is an excellent exercise for practicing your curation skills. Additionally, once you get a feel for Pinterest, you will understand how to “optimize” your content to make it “pinnable” (hint: visuals!) if that is one of your strategic goals.

Example: a basic, Excel-based editorial calendar from the Content Marketing Institute:

http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/EditorialCalendar.jpg

Top 10 Tips for Making an Editorial Calendar Work for You

  1. Pick the right tool. Finding the right tool may require some trial and error, but there are many options. Most often, content marketers use Google Drive Spreadsheets or Microsoft Excel, or bloggers might use the WordPress Editorial Calendar plug-in. However, there are free and paid services such as KaPost, Compendium, DivvyHQ, Wunderkit, Central Desktop, Contently, and more that might serve your purposes. Search on the terms “Content Marketing Platform Calendar” to find a myriad of choices worthy of investigation.
  2. Keep a master calendar separate from detailed ones. The master calendar gives a big-picture view of ALL of your content deliverables at a glance. It should show dates, content types, channels, and a general overview. This is very helpful for the keeper of the calendar, and ideal for sharing with teammates or upper-level management when they want to see a high-level view of your content plan. It is likely that you will need to use one or more detailed calendars as an adjunct, especially if you have several writers or numerous specialized platforms or topics. One strategy if using Excel is to use multiple tabs to break out your editorial plan by channel or by topic.
  3. Start with holidays and events. One quick way to get started is to fill in the holidays that might drive stories or the events that are meaningful to your company. These are easiest to fill in and can get you going in the beginning. Your business may or may not be seasonally based, like traditional magazine publishing, but many companies drive promotions around holidays, and defining your key dates is a quick win.
  4. Customize the calendar for your needs. There is no one calendar template that will work for every company. One person’s meticulous budget detail will not be effective for another person, who is tracking “shares” and “likes.” Include those variables in your calendar that are important to your company (hint: go back to your content strategy or overall marketing plan). A single blogger will have different needs than those of a large company, with numerous channels, promotions, writers, or events.  Also, a calendar can be built magazine-style with the topic first rather than the dates. Keep working your iterations to figure out what will work best for you.
  5. Plan for more than topic and date. Be sure to include the variables that connect your content to your strategy and make the calendar most useful: content type, channel, visuals, writer/producer, targeted or segmented user personas, call to action, keywords and meta data, categories, tags, tone or mood, publish date, status, metrics, and notes. Seeing the connections between your strategies and your content, as well as the results, is critical to measuring your success. Of course, avoid overloading your calendar with so much detail it becomes unusable. See technique No. 2 for more on de-bloating your calendar.
  6. Define your user or buyer personas. It is a basic tenant of communication that one must know one’s audience to be an effective communicator. You need to find out what is important and relevant to them, and how they like to receive communication so that your messages have a chance of reaching them. Additionally, you may design different messages for different segments of your audience and this is critical to know when filling in your editorial calendar. You will be able to see at a glance if you are neglecting a certain segment or monitor if your timing is appropriate.
  7. Know what is customer-centric and what is company-centric. In other words, don’t talk about yourself all the time. Social media luminaries often cite numbers such as a 60/40 split of how often you should post topics about your company’s products and services versus discussing topics more focused on your customers’ needs and interests. Every industry is likely to have its own ratio and the savvy marketer will have a “feel” for balancing conversation with promotion. The important tip to remember is that your calendar should reflect the difference so you can keep your messaging in check.
  8. Build process and workflow into your calendar. Prior to publishing, many companies have a branding or editing review, approval on visuals, or may be followed by a legal review. Your workflow may be shorter or simpler, but build it into your dates so you don’t fall behind on deliverables.
  9. Use your calendar for idea generation. Once you see your topics and channels all scheduled out, it sparks connections between content and strategy that will generate more ideas for the pipeline. Don’t be afraid to include future ideas as a column in your calendar.
  10. Remember to include curated content in your calendar. Sharing other’s imagery or commenting on other’s stories (always with appropriate credits and links back to the source, of course) is a hallmark of social media, and is an important strategy in giving your company-centric promotional topics a rest. Your company’s goals and strategy will determine how much curated content you include in your editorial calendar, but be sure to build this into the mix.

Interview with the Experts

I interviewed two content strategists to get their feedback on how best to incorporate editorial calendars into the communicator’s tool box. They work differently, one as a consultant who runs her own blog, and one as a team member at a large agency. I knew their answers would be somewhat different, showing how an editorial calendar must be customized to the user and situation, so I felt both response sets warranted inclusion.

Experts

Ahava Leibtag is a digital strategist and content creator, and president of Aha Media Group, LLC, a digital content consultancy based in Washington, D.C. Ahava also runs her own blog “Online it ALL Matters.” She answered my questions primarily from the point of view of a blog owner.

Jennifer Carroll is a social media and content marketing strategist at Pole Position Marketing in Canton, Ohio. Jen answered the questions primarily from the point of view of running several initiatives with clients of the agency as well as managing the content on the company blog.

Interview

1. Do you keep an editorial calendar for your blog / website / social media? If yes, can you describe it? For example, is it a broad, top-level view or is it very detailed?

Ahava: It’s an Excel spreadsheet with ideas on one side, a list of what’s been published thus far, the date, and how many views the blog post received.

Jen: For Pole Position Marketing’s e-Marketing Performance blog (EMP), I keep a high-level editorial calendar and use WordPress Editorial Calendar plug-in to keep everything organized. With EMP, a detailed editorial calendar isn’t necessary because we’ve got very committed bloggers on our team. Little direction is required.

On the other hand, with clients who ask me to oversee their editorial process and content creation, I keep a much more detailed editorial calendar – down to the actual topic by publication date. This calendar is updated on a quarterly basis using input from a comprehensive marketing plan, analytics, keyword research, and sales/customer service.

2. How do you prioritize your key messages / brand stories into creating an editorial calendar? For example, do you schedule stories about particular topics at the same day of the week, every week or some other interval?

Ahava: I follow a set schedule in a round robin—I blog about four topics. However, if something is newsworthy or I get excited about a topic, I’ll “break” the sequence.

Jen: I think it’s important to recognize that a company’s “key messages” and “brand stories” should only account for a small portion of a website’s overall content – especially with the blog. Far more important is delivering information, opinions and ideas that customers and potential customers are looking for.

In fact, key messages and brand stories should be developed with customer personas, keyword research and sales/customer service feedback in mind. Otherwise, you run a real risk of sounding “markety” and pushing your own agenda, which doesn’t work very well with today’s savvy, yet distracted, content consumers.

As for scheduling stories, I recommend at least two or three blog posts per week. The blog itself should focus on only five to 10 main topics that center on a business theme or personality.

How you schedule posts depends on what you’re trying to accomplish with your overall marketing plan. Are you writing a series on a particular subject? Do you have an upcoming event? Are you launching a new product? Are you entering a new market? Are you experiencing customer service problems? Blog posts should align with your goals and be directed toward actual and potential customers.

3. Have you developed audience or buyer personas for your brand’s messages and do you build your calendar specifically for their interests/needs? If so, how often do you freshen your personas?

Ahava: I have in my mind who the blog is for, but I don’t have set personas. I do, however, have set personas for who I’m trying to reach with my business—but that’s leads vs. people who may be interested just by coming across my stuff.

Jen: See my answers for question two. As for freshening personas, I think you should do research on an annual basis or any time you’re launching a new product, entering a new market, etc.

4. How do you balance the interests of the audience persona with the needs of the company? In other words, how do you determine a ratio of content that is “fun, interesting and sharable” from the audience perspective, while also informing, persuading and marketing your company’s services/product? Do you develop an actual percentage in your editorial calendar or just “wing it”?

Ahava: I think all my content is fun, interesting and sharable. Otherwise, why would I bother?

Jen: “Fun, interesting and sharable” content – AKA compelling content – is a great goal. It’s optimal when you can create content that is both compelling and satisfies a marketing goal. However, that doesn’t always happen.

There are two key things to remember. First, many people are searching for information and want to learn. They don’t need to be entertained, and they don’t want a hard sell. Second, a blog is not the place market your company. It should be interesting, informative and softly persuasive, and it should reflect the personality of the writer.

Now, that’s not to say you can’t include a recommended solution to a problem with some pertinent product/service links, when appropriate. But, save your obvious marketing messages and strong calls to action for your website pages.

5. What do you do if you have one post planned for a day—it’s one of your key brand topics—but a news story hits that is relevant (to your brand and your audience, although not the topic you planned to post that day)? Do you drop your planned story and jump on the news of the day, choosing between a story that is relevant to the moment or one that is focused on your brand’s content strategy? What are the dangers of both choices?

Ahava: Yes. There is no danger.  My blog doesn’t have that huge a following that I might be disappointing someone. It’s a thought leadership blog so there are no ideas about journalistic needs or serving the public.  Most of my traffic comes within a month after a blog post, so I’m pretty sure my readers are people who are searching for this information and find it later.

Jen: I recommend relevance over a key brand topic. Take advantage of the interest that already exists and use it as a platform to share your angle. Failing to do so can leave the stage wide open for your competitors; you don’t want to be the company writing the “me too” post. Content strategy must be flexible enough to allow for this type of deviation.

6. There are many variables that can go into building an editorial calendar in a spreadsheet (story idea, assigned writer, publish date, removal date, channel, medium, story beats, timing, public events, holidays, meta data, etc.). What advice do you have to prioritize calendar variables to keep it clean and usable for many people?

Ahava: Get software if you have a more than three-person team.

Jen: Without hesitation, I recommend using a plug-in like WordPress Editorial Calendar (there are others). It makes it a breeze to keep everything in place and moving forward. If you use a spreadsheet, it should be on Google Docs/Drive so that all contributors can access it to see assignments and deadlines.

As for priorities, I think each writer must know his or her assigned story, core keywords and first-draft deadline. The rest of the variables are the editor’s primary concern. I recommend monthly or quarterly editorial planning meetings in person, via conference call or Skype to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

7. Can you talk about if or how often you share your editorial calendar with teammates, committees or executives? Do you ever experience top-level managers or executives wanting to change scheduled topics randomly, and how do you stick to your editorial strategy?

Ahava: I don’t have that problem.

Jen: I would mainly with small- to medium-sized businesses with just one layer of management or none at all. When we plan the editorial calendar for the quarter, all the key players who want or need to be involved are part of the conversation. This seems to keep “random changes” to a minimum.

8. If you work with a variety of content producers, how do you organize their assignments? Per  beat, with the same writer tweaking their piece for each channel and medium (Twitter, Facebook, intranet, external site, blog, YouTube), or do you use different producers for each channel, with them taking the original message and customizing it for their specialty? How do you ensure the “voice” of the brand is being properly represented if you use different media and channels?

Ahava: N/A

Jen: Again, I work mainly with small- to medium-sized businesses with limited resources. In most cases, it’s the same person writing channel-appropriate messages for each piece of content.

In social media, people like to connect with other people, not necessarily the “voice of a brand.” In fact, most people who are responsible for pushing out company content with company profiles also have their own personal social profiles. Often, I recommend that a company’s channel bio include a link to those personal profiles. That way readers can research the personality behind everything, giving the company a “face.”

And, right on the heels of that recommendation comes a second one: have a good social media policy in place. It should focus on what employees are encouraged to say and do (not a big long list of no-no’s) while using social media channels, especially when content pertains to the company. Of course, you may need to include a few key reminders of what’s not acceptable, but everything should be in harmony with common sense in communication.

9. How do you measure if your content is hitting the right note with your audience? Can you talk about any specific measurements and analytics you use and how those analytics then inform your editorial calendar?

Ahava: I look at my analytics obsessively but the truth is, the best feedback I get is from word of mouth. Most people who I meet tell me they follow my blog and find it very helpful.

Jen: When it comes to analytics, I take a page from Avinash Kaushik: segment, segment, segment. With content, referring sites and onsite visitor behavior is key. From referring sites, we might look at: What keywords? What landing pages? What bounce rate? For visitor behavior, we might look at: time on site (distribution), length of visit (seconds). What can I learn from those who spent the most time (had certain session length, consumed what content, etc.)?

Any report you look at should give you actionable insights, such as what content is resonating, what keywords are working best and ways most people finding my content. Then, assess the upcoming quarter’s content plan and determine how it needs to be tweaked (more posts on a particular topic, more of a particular form of content, etc.) in order to improve the visitor experience.

10. Do you follow a particular workflow for every piece of content: such as story ideas, writing, fact-checking, editing, legal, or other processes, and if so, do you build that into your editorial calendar?

Ahava: Sometimes.  I try to follow the plan for the month, but if something strikes me as being powerful I go for it.

Jen: I am a publisher, so I must think like one. First, I generate a quarterly calendar of topics and expected publication dates based on the four biggies I mentioned earlier: comprehensive marketing plan, analytics, keyword research and sales/customer service (voice of the customer). Then, I determine a first-draft deadline based on how much time I’ll need for research (fact checking), interviews, editing and legal, as necessary. Some stories will need more scrutiny than others. I try to make sure I build all that time into the process, so that I’m not running around at the last second looking for something to publish.

11. How do you think about your role? Do you consider yourself a storyteller, a curator, a content producer, a publisher, or any of these things?

Ahava: I consider myself someone who thinks about digital strategy and is in service to others to share what I know, think and dream. Practitioners in heavy duty marketing jobs need help—the ground is shifting too quickly for them to know what to do next.  So I try to inform their decisions with data and observations from the field.

Jen: Any and all, depending on the assignment.

12. Do you work from the channel first or the message first? When is it appropriate to focus on one versus the other?

Ahava: Your message should never CHANGE for a channel, it should adapt. I think your personas have to be the guide for that. If you’ve determined your personas hang out on FB more than Twitter, then you should modify your message for FB.

Jen: Each social channel has a unique audience and protocol. I make sure my message is formatted to match.

13. Have you had any feedback from users that you update too often or not frequently enough in your mix of channels? What advice do you have for determining the “just often enough” sweet spot to which your audience is most responsive?

Ahava: Nah, I try to let my personality show in Tweets that aren’t about my business and I don’t obsessively share my stuff. If people find it, great.  If they don’t, I was wrong about it being useful.  Social media requires a long time to build an audience.

Jen: Main feedback on Pole Position’s channel is that we talk about ourselves and our content too much. So, I’m always trying to be a better curator while still getting our content out there. But, there’s only one of me, and sometimes there’s not enough time in the day.

14. How do you keep “inventory” of all your content? Do you keep a rolling content audit (say quarterly, monthly or yearly?) that then informs your editorial calendar? 

Ahava: It’s all on the spreadsheet.

Jen: If you’re developing a quarterly calendar, all your documentation should be available at a glance. The plug-in calendar is a big help, too.

15. Do you have writers producing new stories most of the time, or do you often take existing messages and “refresh and repackage” them as needed to meet your overall content strategy?

Ahava: I have writers who specialize in certain topics for the blog but I’m always involved in that process—editing, brainstorming, etc.

Jen: Our CEO Stoney deGeyter has been blogging regularly since 1998, so he’s got an amazing repository of content that he refreshes and repackages. That’s a bit of an anomaly in this industry. I’m more of the norm. I generally write new stories for the Pole Position Marketing blog, as well as for clients’ blogs because I don’t have much to repurpose.

Conclusion

Reaching customers today is a bigger job than it used to be due to the extensive variety of channels and message types available. Continually producing and managing high-quality content that must be fed to a variety of platforms, while also attracting, converting and retaining customers is no small task. The best way for a communicator to manage this process is to add the editorial calendar to their tool box, and customized it to their needs and objectives.

Resources

Articles

Buyer, Lisa (January 12, 2012). How to Create a Social Media Editorial Calendar. Retrieved from Search Engine Watch website. http://searchenginewatch.com/article/2136988/How-to-Create-a-Social-Media-Editorial-Calendar

Linn, Michele (August 16, 2010). How to Put Together an Editorial Calendar for Content Marketing. Retrieved from Content Marketing Institute website. http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/2010/08/content-marketing-editorial-calendar/

Pulizzi, Joe (May 23, 2012). 12 Challenges that Stop Marketers from Creating Epic Content Marketing. Retrieved from Content Marketing Institute website. http://blog.junta42.com/2012/05/epic-content-marketing-challenges/

Rach, Melissa (July 21, 2011). The Dirt on Editorial Calendars. Retrieved from Brain Traffic Blog.
http://blog.braintraffic.com/2011/07/the-dirt-on-editorial-calendars/

Rosenbaum, Steve (April 27, 2012). 5 Tips for Great Content Curation by Steve Rosenbaum. Retrieved from Mashable website. http://mashable.com/2012/04/27/tips-great-content-curation/

Book

Halvorson, Kristina. (2010). Content Strategy for the Web. Berkeley, CA:  New Riders.

Cartoon

Cartoon by Tom Fishburne of Marketoonist http://tomfishburne.com/2011/11/social-media-monitoring.html shared under Fishburne’s “Free to use in blog posts” licensing option.

Experts

Ahava Leibtag’s blog: Online It ALL Matters. http://onlineitallmatters.blogspot.com/2012/06/healthcare-marketing-10-words-you.html

Jennifer Carroll’s LinkedIn Profile:
http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=20558627&authType=name&authToken=oXqC&goback=%2Egmp_1879338&trk=anet_mfeed_profile

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