09 Sep 2014

The Anatomy of an Effective Content Calendar

September 09, 2014Content Strategy

You’ve decided to take the plunge into content marketing. You have your strategy in place, you have your resources lined up, and you have that burning drive to get started.

Now what? To keep yourself and your content producers on track, and upper management in the loop, you’ll want to develop a content calendar. This document can actually be quite complex, but it’s an extremely effective blueprint.

Whether you call it a blog schedule, an editorial calendar, or a content production timeline — a major goal is to establish a cadence to your content marketing publishing efforts. That’s important, because without producing consistent, sustained content over many months, you’re unlikely to see results.

An editorial calendar will also help you set clear expectations with everyone in your organization who is embarking on this content journey with you. Help them see the path you’re creating — by month, by quarter, or even by a full year.

By planning ahead and providing a structure, you’re demonstrating commitment, and you’re beginning to craft a clearer long-term vision. This will help bring consensus, and that internal buy-in from multiple departments will help you set a high bar for quality content.

The DNA: Your Calendar’s Blueprint

To give life to your content calendar, you’ll need building blocks in the form of a template. No need to worry about creating this kind of blueprint from scratch. There are many examples out there, including this free editorial calendar template from Vertical Measures. Be sure to look at all of the tabs within the two worksheets.

Depending on how many content creators will be working with you (remember they can come from any department in your organization), you may want to actively share your calendar through a cloud-based tool, of which there are also many. We use a combination of Basecamp and Google Drive, which has excellent live collaboration features. Google Calendar or an Excel spreadsheet may be simpler for you and better suit your needs.

You might also consider sharing the calendar with data analysts, marketers, designers, or your manager, so they can visualize and understand how they fit into the process.

content calendar screenshot

The Skeleton: Your Calendar’s Features

With your blueprint in place, now let’s put together a structure and framework for your calendar. It might not have 206 bones like the human body, but an extremely effective content calendar will have a lot of moving pieces, and could include the following:

  • Topics or headlines
  • Brief summaries
  • Contributors: Authors, Editors, Designers
  • Due dates, associated milestones, and approval process
  • Formats of pieces (article, blog post, free guide, white paper, case study, infographic, video, quiz, interview, FAQ, etc.)
  • Publication dates
  • Live URLs
  • Distribution channels (blog, e-mail newsletter, other industry website, etc.)
  • Social media efforts and budget
  • Promotion efforts and budget
  • Moderation of comments
  • Metrics/KPIs
  • Content ideas and brainstorming results

Does the above seem daunting? As with almost any project, it’s OK to start small and then iterate. You can use your content calendar for a wide variety of purposes, but I’d encourage you to think bigger than merely using it as a checklist of headlines and dates. Why? Because content doesn’t stop when you publish it to your website. Consider how — and when — you will promote and distribute the content. How — and when — will you measure it?

The Heart: Your Calendar’s Content

A thoughtful content calendar will reflect the heart of your organization. You should see personality, warmth, creativity, leadership — whatever it is that you want to share with the world. You can use your content calendar to continually remind, motivate, and inspire others around you.

To populate your calendar with these kinds of ideas, consider implementing monthly or seasonal themes, or types of content that recur on certain days of the week (i.e. “Friday’s Featured Employee”). Pieces that collectively form a content series allow your team to explore certain topics in-depth and establish authority and trust with your niche audience.

Right Brain: Creativity and Vision

left brain versus right brainYou know that you need to “think like a publisher.” As you adopt this mindset, you’ll see that you are constantly thinking ahead about your content.

As you establish that cadence to the content you’re producing week in and week out, you’ll also want to schedule consistent times to brainstorm future content, so you can set your vision.

Keep in mind that many factors — changing company priorities, new product lines, or customer feedback — will likely cause you to shift gears as you plan out your calendar.

Being flexible is part of the content game, and if you’re really listening to your customers and paying attention to insights, that can actually lead to some of your most timely and effective pieces of content.

According to Pawan Deshpande, CEO of Curata, “[about] 25% of your content marketing output should be produced in a more sporadic fashion with less strategic direction.” This also offers greater opportunity for experimentation, he says.

So don’t be afraid to deviate from the plan and introduce topics at the last minute. Your content calendar isn’t set in stone — it’s a living, breathing document.

Image source: UCMAS Mental Math Schools

Left Brain: Analysis and Measurement

Note that your calendar should not merely be forward-looking. Take time to reflect by using the calendar as a measuring and reporting tool, in conjunction with your other analytics programs. When you or your team are ready to take this holistic approach to your content calendar, you can use the template and features discussed above to guide you.

Make a concerted effort to record ongoing results in your content calendar, such as:

  • Page views
  • Traffic trends
  • Time on page
  • Downloads
  • Conversions
  • Social media engagement

You’ll want to measure these key data points at ongoing intervals, so that you give content pieces ample time to perform. You don’t want to suffer from paralysis by analysis, but measuring content over time can help you paint a picture of what’s working, what’s not, and how long it takes for your pieces to accomplish the business objectives you have set.

Consistent measurement will allow you to recognize patterns. Are certain themes performing better? Does your content drive more social shares on Wednesdays instead of Fridays? Does your audience engage more with longer pieces or shorter pieces, videos or infographics? Which writers or content producers tend to perform better?

All Body Parts Working Together

A content calendar is your opportunity to drive forward your content marketing efforts. Essentially, you can unify all of your content, social media, promotion, and distribution efforts in a single dashboard. Remember, without a structure and cohesive vision that’s continually enforced by content marketing evangelists in your organization, your content efforts will likely fall short. Even if you start small, you can set yourself and your organization up for success by starting a content calendar today.