Modern marketing demands a steady stream of content for blogs, social media and newsletters. Eager to deliver, marketers charge into the fray, determined to write 1,000 words of high-quality content each day. Overwhelmed by the task, most will fall by the wayside until their efforts dwindle to nothing, and content marketing is declared a failure.
Yet there are real benefits to content that many are exploiting. They produce regular features and articles readers enjoy, which generates new leads and customers. Far from the chaos of blogging, these successes often come with disciplined management and an approach closer to traditional publishing.
In this article I want to explore one of the foundational tools of successful content marketing: the editorial calendar. I’ll explain what it is, how to put one together, and how to use it as a planning tool.
What is an editorial calendar?
In simple terms, it’s a document that shows what content is being released on what date.
An editorial calendar can take many forms, from simple lists to graphical layouts integrated into publishing software. The most common is a spreadsheet that looks like a desk calendar. Key business events, article topics and major activities show what needs to be done. To-do lists and productivity software then tracks the detail.
The benefit of an editorial calendar is as a focus for your publishing efforts. Placed at the centre of your planning, it helps commission relevant content. It can also keep track of work and ultimately deliver a consistent flow of content that supports and promotes your business.
What does an editorial calendar show?
In my experience, effective calendars show three distinct layers of information.
The business environment
These are events you’ll want to engage with or reference. The majority will relate to your customers, while some will be about you. For example, the end of the tax year is important for an accountant’s customers. Internal events could be conferences you’re sponsoring, or annual financial statements.
The publishing cycle
If you think of publishing a magazine, this is how often you’d publish it and what would go inside. Although we often start out thinking we’ll publish daily, this is a hard rhythm to keep up, and quality and consistency quickly suffers. For most small businesses, I’d suggest aiming for a monthly cycle to start. For example, you might publish a “how to” guide on week 1, an interview on week 2, analysis of your customers’ markets on 3, and finish the month with a review and look ahead to coming months.
This shows the link between publishing cycle and business environment. It maps pieces of content against the content types from the cycle. Again, think of a magazine that has “special features” tied to current events. For example, an accountant’s monthly “how to” content would become the article “how to prepare your tax returns”. Published in November, it will coincide with the start of the annual tax return season.
How this information is presented is a personal choice. I prefer to use a colour coded spreadsheet on a shared drive so everyone in the team can at least see (if not edit) what’s happening.
How do you put all this together?
In my experience, there are planning cycles that work well together.
An annual cycle puts together the business environment for the year ahead. Usually this aligns to the calendar, fiscal or business year, and happens a few months before the new year starts. As well as mapping out the environment, there is a review of the publishing cycle, and major adjustments made. Changes made in other cycles are often limited to minor tweaks.
Weekly / Monthly
A publishing cycle is usually a weekly or monthly session that turns ideas into plans and assigns work. Ideas for features are discussed, and either put on a backlog for another time, or shaped into something to work on now. If the work is commissioned, this is where deadlines, resources and budgets are set.
The daily cycle is focused on progress. There’s a review of individual tasks, problems surfaced and momentum maintained. Typically lasting 10-15 minutes, they go by names like “daily stand-up”, “huddle” and “scrum”.
Some businesses may have a quarterly review. I’ve never found these to be useful as anything other than a check point for management oversight. If your publishing cycle works well there won’t be a need for them.
This doesn’t sound very “digital”…
Online content has a reputation for being reactive to events. Some businesses do this well, but the majority struggle. Instant reaction to news is not something many expect from their suppliers. Nor are many companies set up to be newsrooms.
That said, sometimes you need to react to circumstance. A sudden change in your market or an event in the news can prompt a need for something more immediate. You can’t wait for the next planning cycle or slot in the editorial calendar, you need content now.
There is nothing stopping you from reacting.
What the editorial calendar gives you is the context for that decision. You’ll see the immediate impact on your plans from pivoting to the new content. You may also see ways to respond in the regular schedule. Sometimes not reacting now and publishing an analysis a few days later carries more weight. More so given problems with “fake news” and the inaccuracies of initial reports from social media.
Should I use an editorial calendar?
All businesses benefit from having structure to their content. It saves time being wasted on something irrelevant. You can plan to produce high-quality content that strikes a chord with your customers and prospects. The discipline of putting an editorial calendar together and planning against it will help you grow, both as a business and as a marketer.
Yet scale always matters. If you are a one-person marketing department, you might need nothing more than a spreadsheet of what’s being published when and a to-do list of tasks. A larger business with a wide range of products and international markets may need a more robust solution than a wall planner and Trello.
What matters is:
- Having a view of the events that matter to your customers, and topics to address them
- A regular publishing cycle to create consistency for your audience (and for you)
- Planning cycles where you check progress, create ideas and allocate work
- Using it as a tool to give you space and options for when you do need to down tools and focus on current events.
The bottom line
Without planning and management, content marketing is likely to result in disappointment and failure. An editorial calendar is a tool to help you overcome this with a focal point. Use it to align your content with events that matter to customers and create a regular publishing cycle that builds confidence. Regular planning and review sessions will help you keep on track and offer options for when you need to react to events.
Perhaps most important is not to slavishly follow a doctrine. Adapt your calendar to meet your needs. Be as detailed as you need, and review as often as keeps you on track.