Work Smarter, Not Harder: Creating a Strategic Content Plan
Henry Ford and the assembly line. Steve Jobs and the personal computer. Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Google’s algorithms.
The common thread among these inventors and innovators is the desire to work smarter, not harder—either through enhanced processes, more powerful tools or better strategies. Throughout history, just when mankind thinks they’ve reached their limits, they reinvent the game, leaping forward to a new era of productivity.
Content marketing is reaching a similar threshold: One by one, marketing teams are realizing they can’t produce enough content, fast enough, to outrun the SEO game. There’s always more to publish, more keywords to claim, more longtailed search questions to answer.
As my colleague Mike Kaput explains, “Ravenous crowds want more content. And more competitors than ever are rolling out buffets. To keep up, as readers and creators, our schedules are packed. Deadlines never die.”
Add your team’s other responsibilities to the mix, and the reality is unnerving. If you feel like you are on a never-ending publishing treadmill, you’re not alone. According to HubSpot’s 2013 State of Inbound Marketing annual report, most marketers are still working in very small teams:
“Eighty-one percent of all inbound teams contain fewer than six people. This small team environment is pervasive at every level of the industry, as 31 percent of companies with 200+ employees still work in five-person teams or fewer.”
Arguably more troubling, the Content Marketing Institute found that fewer than 5 percent of marketers had any sort of editorial or content marketing mission statement. Asserts CMI founder Joe Pulizzi: “This is a major problem. How can we execute a content strategy if we don’t have a clear vision for why we are developing the content in the first place?”
The tide has shifted toward content-driven, permission-based inbound marketing tactics, and the verdict is clear: Unless you dramatically shift your focus to work smarter, not harder, on content marketing efforts, you are almost certainly destined for failure.
As Warren Buffett puts it, “In a chronically leaking boat,energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.”
If you spend your weekdays drowning in content creation, it’s time to get out of the boat.
Rethinking Your Content
What can you do to keep your marketing team afloat? Function less like a newspaper and more like a magazine.
Many content marketing teams function like newspapers, coming up with topics for content as they go, and seeking inspiration from current events or trends.
And that model works fine for newsrooms, which dedicate their entire workweek to content production (though some would argue that they too are falling flat in the age of real-time journalism and the 24-hour news cycle). But the model fails marketers for two reasons:
- It doesn’t allow for balance with the other responsibilities marketing teams have—whether account management, servicing other departments such as sales, data management and analysis, or outbound marketing programs.
- It focuses on what is newest, not on what is most strategic.
But as anyone with experience in journalism, media relations or advertising knows, magazines have long lead times. The editorial calendar for the entire year is decided on by January, with advertising due months in advance and stories planned six months out.
The result? A well-developed, strategic product intended to entertain and inform its audience throughout the year. Long-term planning is key to addressing the fatigue of endless content creation, enabling you to:
- Allocate team resources more effectively. Put an end to the need-it-yesterday hunt for topics; a practice that stifles creativity, causes staff burnout and allows low-quality ideas to slip through.
- Achieve greater relevance. Balance proactive and reactive content creation by planning content specific to major events, holidays and seasonality you already know are ahead.
- Proactively address gaps in content. Refine your strategy by addressing weak or absent content for specific keywords, buyer personas or stages in the sales funnel.
E3 Content Strategy founder Kathy Hanbury summarizes it well:
“You don’t necessarily need a large, formal content strategy. You just need to take the time to think things through and determine your goals, resourcing, workflow and success metrics, which can save you from the high cost of ineffective content. You can’t expect to get where you want to go if you don’t know where that is, what you need to do to get there, or how to even recognize it if you stumble across it.”
Approach the year strategically, so you have the bandwidth to learn and adjust based on performance. It should feel a bit like painting a mural: Ideally, you should be able to step back at the end of the year and see a well thought out picture.
By carving out a few hours a month, you can save yourself and your team from a year of heartache—and Alka-Seltzer. Here are some ideas to get started.
A 12-Month Content Marketing Game Plan
Your goal: Take stock of your assets and align your vision.
- Take inventory. Review the organization’s content (here is a sample content inventory spreadsheet). Evaluate and identify gaps or weaknesses.
- Set objectives for the coming year to address gaps. Specify topics, content types (e.g. blog posts, premium content, multimedia content), and success metrics (e.g. page views, unique visitors, downloads).
- Align with sales and organizational goals. Sit down with key stakeholders and identify major milestones for the year. These may be internal, such as new product launches, organizational restructuring, rebranding, or moving into new verticals, or external—like major events, trade shows and reports in your industry, as well as events important to your consumer (e.g. holidays).
- Develop a content calendar. Similar to a magazine editorial calendar, outline theme(s) for each month that will guide content creation efforts, as well as premium content pieces, such as ebooks or white papers, that will require additional time and resources to publish.
Your goal: Review the major projects ahead. Identify tangible, near-term objectives to move inbound marketing efforts forward.
- Quarters are a good time to review goals. You have enough data and learning to adjust goals based on performance, priority shifts and obstacles (such as another project eating up more time than anticipated), but it’s still big-picture enough to avoid getting too tactical.
- Focus on the next 6 months. What do you plan to do this quarter to move marketing efforts forward, and how do you plan to build on that next quarter? Identify builders and drivers, then prioritize.
Your goal: Build out content calendar with publishing workflow and milestones. Solicit input from stakeholders outside of marketing.
- Review your content calendar, including slated topics, upcoming events and dates of significance in industry.
- Set deadlines,workflows and publishing estimates, working backward based on how long you forecast to write, edit and publish.
- Assign deliverables to members of content creation team.
- If possible, hold a monthly cross-functional editorial meeting. Take this opportunity to pull in decision makers and subject matter experts across the organization to perpetuate organizational buy-in for inbound marketing efforts and to solicit feedback and content ideas.
Your goal: Assess and adjust team workload as necessary. Perform a team gut check.
- Conduct a weekly review. Set aside time each week for planning and organization. Review publishing deadlines, and get caught up on industry news.
- Hold a weekly editorial meeting for the content-producing team. Share and discuss news and strategize timely content ideas. This is an especially helpful practice for more traditional marketing departments that are going inbound, where this process is less organic.
- Review weekly assignments with editorial team. Make sure they know their assignments, shift workloads as necessary, and keep the team moving forward on larger content pieces.
Your goal: Execute and communicate.
- Carve out time to write, to monitor and to publish. If you’re not part of content production, make sure the team commits some time to this each day.
- Keep the lines of communication open, both for project management and idea generation purposes. An enterprise social network such as Yammer is ideal for this.
- Fill slow days by producing evergreen content. Encourage your team to maintain a standing, shared list of ideas that they can “harvest” during downtime. Asana and Evernote are both great tools.
Remember, it’s not about doing all of these things at once; it’s shifting from reactive to proactive, urgency to strategy, quantity to quality.
“We don’t plan anymore. We really don’t think about it, so we’re not being real thoughtful with our content. And that’s why I think there’s so much stuff out there that’s a repetition of what they’ve read or saw somewhere else … Now everybody’s going to have to start backing up to, ‘What really makes our content work for us?’”