Content planning guide: Beat overwhelm and keep the ideas going
The biggest problem clients bring to me is content marketing overwhelm.
Since I’m often asked about my content marketing philosophy, I decided to start outlining the mindset I bring to my client projects and content strategy engagements. More often than not, I favor simple content processes and planning. To me, this seems like a good starting point to refine over time.
Good content planning doesn’t happen by accident. If you want your content marketing to be read and appreciated, you’ll need plentiful and relevant content ideas. Given how hard it can be to continuously come up with new content, though, it’s no surprise that idea generation is one of the biggest requests I get from new clients.
What they’re asking, usually, is for direction and consistency that can carry them through not only a new product release or market shift, but also for direction that can help them reduce all of their marketing distractions.
- What do I write now, when I have a huge internal list of ideas from the team?
- Do I choose more technical topics, or something more digestible that the sales team can use with customers?
- Am I building SEO?
- Should I contribute to outside publications?
Of course, the answers vary. And honestly, at least on the surface, there are so many factors worth considering as you prioritize your calendar, that many marketers fall into “shiny object syndrome” and leave core content planning questions like these unanswered. Or, they sign up product managers and sales leads for rotating contributions to the blog – with more voices, perhaps, the blog can rely on creative chaos to keep ideas flowing and a content backlog building.
Having a content backlog is great, and I have absolutely nothing against team members contributing content to your marketing channels. I am, however, concerned whenever content planning is unclear. Unclear planning prevents you from maximizing your content marketing efforts.
Quick rules for content planning
If you do some research online, you’ll find a lot of great in-depth guides for finding the right content marketing channels and forming ideas to reach your audience (resources I recommend you start with include Hubspot and Neil Patel’s blog for great primers and digital marketing basics). It’s worth it to deep-dive into the best of what we know about content marketing, if only so you come away from your research with more insight into the power of targeted, relevant content. Knowing what you’re trying to accomplish with your blog, you can usually plan and prioritize your calendar from there.
For instance, Neil Patel talks about the importance of planning content quarterly and published a guide. I’m a big fan.
Without a doubt, this is one of the best ways to keep on top of your content marketing. I speak from experience when I say that by-the-week or monthly content calendars are a great way to lose track – it’s so tempting to push content ideation aside, and it’s so dangerous.
To get your content planning on a more consistent schedule, you have to have tons of ideas, all the time. You need both a full roster of evergreen ideas that you can sub-in whenever your head of sales is too busy to write, or you can’t get that SME interview scheduled. But you also need ideas that are timely and take advantage of controversial or of-the-moment industry conversations.
In the spirit of making your content marketing easier, then, let’s talk about a few helpful rules for quick content planning. This is the Pareto Principle (80/20 Rule) at work – the small efforts that can make up 80 percent of the results you need. No, it won’t get you 100 percent there, but it will get you started with content planning on a route you can adjust and build upon as you go.
1. Have written plans and content standards, even if they’re nothing impressive
In fact, please start with unimpressive plans and see them as working drafts you’ll shape in an Agile-inspired fashion through experience. To get going, consider:
- A list of goals: Everyone wants a perfect blog and lead generation engine, and needed it yesterday, and this entails strong, natural organic traffic and SEO as well as industry-shaping content. If you have to articulate your goals clearly in writing (and you really should, since writing down goals increases the likelihood of success), your best bet is to start somewhere and focus.
- Metrics you can quantify: Maybe just pick three metrics to track for now, and worry about the rest later. Or find a particularly important or underperforming one. If you know your SEO is lagging behind, you
- A brand, style and standards guide: Once you involve multiple parties in your content strategy and execution, your standards are what create consistency. If you need to, borrow/steal a guide you like from another brand (here’s MailChimp’s style guide for inspiration! It’s clear, straightforward, and offered in a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license).
- Your personas and really clear positioning: Now, this part may take some work. I’m not a positioning expert, but what I do know is that many companies skip over this part of the marketing formation process or don’t do enough to have real clarity around their targeting. April Dunford’s A Quickstart Guide to Positioning is a great resource for B2B tech companies (or basically anyone, really). If your sales team routinely finds that prospects struggle to understand your value proposition until after they purchase, your positioning may be the problem.
The real point of this rule, in other words, is to make sure you’re always moving your marketing forward, even if only incrementally.
2. Keep track of content ideas (and don’t filter them)
I see you, self-editors! Some of us can’t help but start filtering idea lists and continuously pruning the bad ideas.
Having an editorial instinct is something to be prized in this line of work, so it makes sense that we’d start hacking away as soon as we start writing anything down. Soon, that list of 50 new article ideas cuts down to just 5, and you realize there’s no way your SME has time to help with any of them.
Or, perhaps more realistically, you never get there to 50, because you’re stuck at 3 – which is why the blog hasn’t been updated in a month.
There are really important reasons why you should stop throwing away topics, though.
- You may have a content seed: Maybe that topic isn’t ready yet, but plant that seed and it’ll grow into a beautiful tree. Whatever idea you don’t like now could still be kept in a reservoir for later.
- “Buckets” of content ideas lead to great topics: Your bad idea may be too broad, detailed, or comprehensive for one article – keep it anyway. “Reasons to migrate to the cloud” is such a big topic that you could easily write books about it. But if you set it aside, you may realize you can create topics out of it later on.
- Industry news could make it relevant again: An overused topic could find its way back. If you started thinking about this topic in the past, you’re ahead of the game with any background information, research, or even just good questions you held onto from past content planning.
- Topics combine together and cross over: Maybe an idea isn’t great by itself, but you can pair it with another idea and watch the magic unfold.
- You may accidentally kill ideas too early: When we self-edit, we’re probably removing a lot of ideas that haven’t had a chance to fully develop. More research, experimentation, or collaboration may help that idea reach its potential. But it certainly won’t help you if you ditch the idea too soon.
In practice, putting these rules to work could mean that you keep a running Google Doc or spreadsheet of ideas-in-progress, even if it looks like a mess. At the ideation stage, creativity is what counts, because you have plenty of time to let your inner critic pare it back down.
3. Loop-in customer-facing team members
We’ve probably all heard by now that we should override corporate silos and build cross-departmental and cross-functional teams. But I still see some organizations paying lip service to this best practice. To make matters worse, the only reason some companies have an advantage here is because they’re still startups.
Anyway, you should probably talk to customer-facing teams about your content marketing, at the very least. These folks are a great resource for customer questions and industry ideas.
- Pitch them: Instead of asking them to contribute blog ideas all the time (although you certainly should ask them for ideas), why not try pitching your sales and support teams? Read them your best ideas for the next quarter and ask if they think customers would actually read it.
- Ask for a list of FAQs: What customers want to know about makes great marketing content and may help your colleagues. Wouldn’t it be cool if sales had another resource prospects actually want to read?
- Make it easy to participate: As with any stakeholder you want to include in your content planning, you’ll probably get the best results if you make participation straightforward. We’re all busy people, so something as simple as a shared doc where you invite comments or a dedicated Slack channel can make it possible to broaden participation in your content planning.
If you do ask team members to contribute fully written content, I recommend getting them started with an idea of what you’re looking for – set them up for success with questions or an outline, even though they are the SME, to help with writer’s block and make helping with content an easy ask.
4. When in doubt, choose just one social media channel
When you’re planning content around a channel, it’s okay to choose just one. For most companies, this means using a LinkedIn company page or top leaders’ personal profiles. Don’t worry about the rest if you don’t have a strong social media presence already.
But you probably don’t need a “strong” social media presence. Here’s what I mean by that – I have to parse my words carefully now.
If you’re in B2B, runaway success for your company on social media isn’t going to look like a B2C brand’s success. It’s okay not to become a household name. Just focus on leading the conversations that interest your customers.
5. Start with trade-offs, sometimes
As soon as you start pursuing one content goal, you’ll probably find a dozen others are valuable, too. There are only so many hours in a day and there’s only so much funding in the marketing budget. If you find yourself struck by a case of overwhelm, this may be your sign to learn to live with a few cobwebs until you have time for them. Content FOMO (fear of missing out) is real, but that doesn’t have to deter us.
This means you may have to live with a few challenges for now, as unrealized opportunities you can address later. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable and let that be your motivation to streamline, ruthlessly improve, and stretch your team’s skillset.