How to Plan Your Content for Maximum Productivity

The Advanced Guide to Content Marketing

Written by Neil Patel & Kathryn Aragon

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By now, you have a working content marketing plan and a list of ideas. It's time now to start planning your content. (This is the fun part.)

In this chapter, you'll continue to expand on the Content Plan you created in chapter 1. You'll develop a working Editorial Planner in which you can plan and track your content, and after it's published, record results. You'll also begin planning content for the next few months.

Ready to begin?

Set up [or refine] the Categories for your blog

Remember the secondary topics you set up in chapter 1? In Section 4, Step 2, you turned each of these topics into a keyword or phrase. If you go back to the Strategic Plan in your Content Plan document, you'll find them in the Core Message box under "Summary/Keyword."

Set up (or refine) the Categories for your blog #1

Each of these secondary topics needs to be a category in your blog.

If you already have a website with categories, double-check that your categories match the terms you selected for your secondary messages. If they do, you're set. Skip down to Section 2, "Go deep with your Ideal Customer."

If you don't already have a website with categories — or if your categories don't align with your secondary messages — you need to set them up now. Continuing with our assumption that you have a WordPress blog, here's how to make that happen:

  1. In your Wordpress admin panel,
    navigate to Posts > Categories.

    Set up (or refine) the Categories for your blog #2
  2. Enter your first category name.

    Set up (or refine) the Categories for your blog #3

    If you created short, easy-to-grasp secondary messages, this will be easy. Just type in your first one beside "Name."

    If your secondary messages are questions or statements, you'll need to use the terms you entered under "Summary / Keyword." This should be a short, recognizable name to capture the main idea behind your secondary message.

    Remember, whatever you enter as the category name will show up in the sidebar of your website.

  3. Enter the "Slug."

    The slug is what shows up in the URL of your category page:

    http://www.yourURL.com/category/slug

    The last part of this URL is the slug that you enter in this step. It should be:

    • Lower case
    • Only letters, numbers and hyphens
  4. Enter the parent category if you have one.

    Categories can have hierarchy. In other words, you can create a category for Marketing and then create subcategories for Digital Marketing, Email Marketing, Content Marketing, and more.

    At this stage, you probably don't have any lower-level categories, so keep the default, "None."

  5. Enter SEO details.

    To help optimize your site, enter a Title Tag, Meta Description, and Keywords for the category page.

    Set up (or refine) the Categories for your blog #4

    Let's say this is a category page for the topic, "Marketing".

    The Title Tag might be: Marketing articles by YourBrandName.

    Your title should be descriptive and no longer than 70 characters. It should also contain your keyword.

    The Meta Description should be 150 characters maximum and should include a short description of the articles that you'll include in this part of your blog.

    Something like: Great marketing helps you connect with your ideal customers, helping them know, like and trust you. Read Brand's tips and tactics here.

    For the Keyword, type in your category name.

  6. Enter a title and introduction for the category page.

    Set up (or refine) the Categories for your blog #5

    When someone clicks on one of the categories in your blog, they'll land on the category page.

    The title and introduction that you enter now will determine how this page looks.

    Consider using the same title you entered in the SEO section above. Then create a short, compelling description of the information people will find in the articles you include in this section.

    You can use the same blurb you included in the Meta-Description above, but here, there's no limit to length. We suggest two or three sentences.

  7. Click the "Add New Category"
    button to save your settings.

  8. Repeat for your other secondary messages.

Note:

You don't need to create a category for your core message because that idea will work its way into every message you write. For instance, if your core message related to "optimization," then every piece of content you create will relate in some way to optimization.

You may develop two or three keywords that relate to your core message and then use those keywords liberally in all your messaging. This creates a strong, unified brand message across all platforms, regardless of the type of content.

Go deep with your Ideal Customer

In Chapter 1, you identified your ideal customers. (In Chapter 1, Section 3, Step 4, you even created an avatar for them.). Now it's time to go deep and really get to know them.

There are three questions that all buyers want to answer before making a purchase:

  1. Do you understand what I'm trying to achieve?
  2. If I follow your process or use your product, will I get the results I want?
  3. Are you going to be there for me if I have problems or questions?

Before you begin planning or writing content, you need to know the answers to these three questions.

  1. Forget what you think you know about your customers.

    It's easy to get near-sighted about your products and think you know why people buy it.

    In order to know what type of content you need to create, you need to know the real reason people choose you over the competition.

    And in order to do that, you need to talk to your customers.

  2. Set up an interview with a customer.

    1. If you have dedicated sales and marketing teams, you may need to talk to the Sales Director to help him or her understand the value of marketing based on real, not assumed customer pain points. Ask for help selecting the best customers for this interview, and to make any necessary introductions.
    2. Select a customer who is open to sharing insights about what was going on when they first realized they needed to find a product like the one they purchased from you.
    3. Call and set up a 30-minutes meeting. To help, here's a possible script you can use:

      Hello, Customer Name. This is Interviewer's Name, from Company. We're trying to step up our customer support by creating more content to help customers just like you. But we want to be sure we provide the type of information that is most useful. Since you've been a long-time customer, we were wondering if you'd be willing to share your insights.

      Wait for response. If positive...

      What we'd need is just 30 minutes of your time to ask a few questions about why you purchased product and how well it has performed for you. Would you be able to carve out 30 minutes to meet with me?

      Set up your meeting.

  3. Don't talk. Listen.

    Your goal from this meeting is to learn:

    • The thoughts and events that prompted your customer to begin looking for a solution to its problem.
    • What that problem was in their words, not yours.
    • What criteria they were looking for in a product.
    • Why they finally settled on your product.
    • How it has solved the problem.

    Do not use a script in your interview. You want to have a real conversation, not merely collect data. Here's how you should proceed:

    1. Begin by asking your customer:

      Think back to the point when you first considered buying this product. What was going on at that time?

    2. Then listen.

      Let your customer talk about what was happening and what s/he was thinking.

    3. Probe further to get as many real-life details as possible.

      You want to understand what the customer was feeling and what his or her challenges were. You also want to know what s/he was hoping to achieve by buying you product.

    4. Respect the time.

      After 30 minutes, if you don't have the information you need, ask if it would be possible for you to have a second meeting. But don't overstay your welcome. Thank your customer for his or her help and end the interview.

  4. Perform more interviews, following these same guidelines

    The more insights you can collect, the better. Aim for three to five interviews to start. But periodically, plan to perform other interviews so your research remains current.

    Consider also surveying your readers and/or conducting focus groups.

  5. Evaluate what you learned

    1. In your planning document, write these three headings:

      • What people are thinking when they begin looking for your product.
      • What need triggered their decision to get serious about purchasing.
      • What information they found most useful in the buying decision.
    2. Record the answers according to your customer interview.

      Go deep with your Ideal Customer #1

      Now use that information to create a Questions Analysis.

Questions analysis

What questions do your ideal customers ask at each stage of the buying cycle? When you know this, you'll know what content you need at the core of your content marketing strategy.

  1. Create a new tab in your planning document.

    Name it "Questions Analysis."

    Questions analysis #1
  2. Title the page in row 1. Then in row 3, create three column heads:

    Questions analysis #2
    Column A
    Buying Stage
    Column B
    Customer Questions
    Column C
    Your Answer
  3. In Column A, list the five stages the buyer goes through when considering a purchase:

    1. Realization that they have a problem.
    2. Information gathering.
    3. Evaluation of possible solutions.
    4. Product section.
    5. Implement of the solution.
    Questions analysis #3
  4. In Column B, write out the questions and concerns your customers talked about in your interviews.

    Do you best to assign the different questions and concerns to a particular stage in the buying process.

    TIP: To lay out your information as pictured, you'll need to put multiple questions in one Excel cell. Hitting Enter will take you to the next cell in the page. So instead, hold down the Alt key while hitting Enter. The cursor will move to the next line of text in the same cell.

  5. Provide an answer to each
    question or concern in Column C.

    You may need to talk with your sales or customer relations teams in order to learn what responses are most effective.

    If this is your first time to frame "official" branded responses, you may not know the answer that will resonate best with your prospects and customers. You may:

    • Create answers that you feel address the informational needs at each stage.
    • Test your answers by using them consistently when talking to prospects and customers.
    • Over time, as you evaluate people's responses to your answers, rephrase your answers (or change them) until you find the answers that resonate with people.

Create your Editorial Planner.

  1. Create a new tab in your Content Plan Excel file, called "Editorial Planner."

    Create your Editorial Planner #1
  2. Prepare Editorial Planner page

    In row 1, name the page, "Editorial Planner." In row 3, create the column heads.

    Create your Editorial Planner #2
    Column A
    Date
    Column B
    Type of Content
    Column C
    Content Idea or Topic
    Column D
    Title
    Column E
    Objective
    Column F
    Keywords
    Column G
    Views
    Column H
    Comments
    Column I
    Social Shares
    Column J
    Sales
    Column K
    Notes
  3. Freeze the top panes

    Place the cursor over the row number of the row below your header. (If you're using our layout, that's row 4.)

    Click to highlight the row. Then click View > Freeze Panes > Freeze Panes (the top selection).

    Create your Editorial Planner #3

    This will keep your columns headers in view, no matter how far down you scroll in the document.

Prepare for your first planning session

  1. Invite key members of your editorial team

    Who needs to be in your planning sessions? If you are a:

    • Corporate Team. editor, writers, media producers, graphic artists, webmaster
    • Virtual Team. writer(s) and editor, talking on Skype or over the phone
    • Solopreneur. It's all you, baby.
  2. Finalize your publication schedule

    In Chapter 1, you decided on the types of content you want to create and the technology you'll use to create/publish it. (See the Channel Plan section of the Strategic Plan: Tab 1 in your Content Plan document).

    Check the "Frequency" column of your Channel Plan. If you haven't already, set specific days of the week or month to publish this content, do that now.

  3. Determine how long it will take to create your content

    Based on the type of content, your production schedule, and your available resources, how much lead time do you need to be able to produce different types of content?

    content writing & research graphics & layout editing & upload time required
    infographic 1 week 3 weeks 2 days 4.5 weeks
    ebook 4-6 weeks 2 weeks 2 weeks 8-10 weeks
    blog post 2 days -- 2 days 4 days
    video 4 days 1 day 1 week 2 weeks
  4. Determine how far in advance and how frequently you need to hold planning sessions

    Let's back up for a minute.

    Once a year, usually in December, you need to perform a high-level strategy meeting to set your content strategy for the coming year. In that meeting, you'll:

    1. Set your priorities for the year.
    2. Select one or two areas for improving or increasing results of content marketing.
    3. Enter major promotions and content themes into the annual calendar.

    If you haven't already set your annual strategy, your first planning session should focus on that.

    Then once you have your annual strategy, you'll hold regular planning sessions throughout the year to plan content for the coming weeks or months. When we talk about your planning sessions in the rest of this chapter, this is what we're talking about.

    Right now, your goal is to determine how often you want to hold planning sessions.

    • If you produce a lot of content, you may need to meet weekly or bimonthly, if only to keep tabs on the volume of work being done.
    • If you produce less content, one planning session a month may be sufficient.
  5. Schedule you content planning sessions

    A few questions you need to consider:

    • How many types of content do you plan to create?
    • Do topics need to be approved? By whom?

    What is the timeframe needed to get approvals so content production can begin?

    Based on your answers, choose the days you want to hold content planning sessions. Mark them in your calendar.

    Note:

    If you have a large team meeting face-to-face, and if you create a lot of content, the meeting could take an hour or more. If you meet virtually with one content creator at a time, you may only need 30 minutes.

  6. Establish a workflow for content creation

    Before assigning content, you need to approve a workflow that will result in the best quality content for your brand. Two examples follow:

    Content marketing team publishing twice a week:

    1. Planning meetings are held once a month to review content ideas for the next month.
    2. After the meeting, content writers produce the planned content and submit to appropriate subject matter expert for review.
    3. Content is returned to writers for edits, then submitted to editor.
    4. Editor reviews content and marks changes. It is returned to content creators for editing.
    5. Once changes are made, content is given to Web team for uploading and layout according to branded Web standards.
    6. Editor previews content, graphics and branding, and requests any final changes necessary. Then s/he schedules for publication.

    Contracted content writers writing two posts per month for daily blog:

    In this scenario, most of the responsibility falls to the editor, who coordinates content creators and oversees the smooth operation of the blog.

    1. Each month, writers email their ideas for the next month to the editor. The editor then Skypes each writer to discuss and refine ideas.
    2. Writers work independently to develop content, including research, fact-checks, and graphics.
    3. Writers upload content to website, then notify editor that they are complete..
    4. Editor reviews content, marks changes, and notifies writer that edits are needed.
    5. Writer has one week to respond to and/or complete edits.
    6. Editor completes SEO, branding and other issues, and schedules publication.

    Your workflow depends on your business resources and needs:

    Will you publish each day/week, once or twice a week, or once or twice a month?
    Frequent publishing means you don't have time for a lot of reviews and approvals. It may also require monthly or weekly planning meetings to keep a steady flow of good ideas.
    Will you write long educational posts or short newsjacking posts?
    If you want your posts to be reviewed by subject matter experts and other stakeholders, you'll need more lead time to produce content, which means newsjacking may not be for you. On the other hand, if you want to create a lot of timely, relevant content, you'll need to give your writers freedom to publish quickly with fewer reviews. Create a workflow that allows the speed and quality control that works for your brand.
    How many content creators do you have?
    If you have a team of content creators, you can spread the work load, which means you can produce more content, more quickly, or hold fewer planning meetings.

    NOTE: There is no "right way" to produce content.

    • Some brands publish daily.

      Their routine is to plan one week at a time, then write and publish content on the day it goes live.

    • Other brands publish once a week.

      They hold a planning session once a quarter to loosely plan the topics that will be covered. Then once a month, they set aside a week to review and produce the next month's content.

    • Some brands publish only once or twice a month.

      They plan in six-month chunks, and content is written as the publication date nears.

      The choice is yours, and it depends on your priorities and how your workflow is organized.

    At this point, you've made all the preliminary decisions needed to effectively run your content marketing.

    • You have your team in place.
    • You have a workflow for getting content produced in the most effective way possible.
    • You know how long it takes to create each type of content, so you know how far in advance you need to plan for each piece.

    You're ready to plan your content for the next few weeks or months.

Hold your planning session

During your planning sessions, you want to do two things:

  1. Plan content that will build reader engagement.
  2. Optimize the idea to meet your business objectives.

You must always place reader engagement above your business objectives. That being the case, you'll focus on developing your ideas for readers first.

  1. In column A, enter the publication dates that you are planning for.

    Hold your planning session #1

    Open the Editorial Planner you made in the Section 2 above. Then write the dates for regularly published content in Column A.

    If you create content for multiple blogs or brands, use a code to identify which one the idea applies to. Or, if it would simplify matters, create a separate Editorial Planner for each brand.

    If you are only responsible for creating the content, not scheduling it, you may enter publication dates after they're scheduled.

  2. List the types of content that need to be produced

    Hold your planning session #2

    Beside each publication date, in Column B, "Type of Content," mark the type of content needed. For example:

    • Social media post
    • Blog post
    • Special report or ebook
    • Infographic
    • Video
    • Podcast
  3. List potential content topics in Column C, "Content Topic."

    Ideas are developed differently in different organizations. Your initial ideas may come from the writer, editor, or the C-Suite. However, the development of those ideas will be the same.

    • In some corporate organizations, ideas are mandated by the C-Suite, and the content marketing team merely executes those ideas. You'll simply enter their ideas in Column C.
    • In other corporate environments, the writers have more input. At this stage, you may go around the room, asking each team member to suggest ideas they're considering. Enter each idea as it's proposed.
    • If you have a virtual team, ideas likely originate with the writer or artist who will produce the idea. Rather than having a team meeting, you may simply make a Skype call and ask what ideas the writer has in mind.
    • Solopreneurs, this entire process is done alone. As you plan, you'll need to fulfill all roles: strategic planner, content creator, and editor. You may need to brainstorm for ideas (see Chapter 2), or transfer ideas from your Notes app or scraps of paper you've been collecting.

    At this stage, your ideas may only be general, undeveloped topics or categories that need a new piece of content.

    Hold your planning session #3

    You may have already had some ideas about how to develop the idea. In that case, you may have a rough outline.

    Whatever it looks like, write what you have in Column C.

  4. Refine your ideas.

    1. Review one idea (or topic) at a time

      Your goal at this point is to turn general, broad topics into focused, relevant content ideas. To do that, you'll address one piece of content at a time.

    2. Develop that idea

      Here's the typical process for the evolution of an idea:

      1. Introduce the topic.

        Hold your planning session #4
      2. Evaluate whether it will give value to your readers.

        • Is this topic overdone?
        • Do you have something unique to say about it?
        • Is it useful?
        • Is it relevant?
        • Does it matter to your ideal customer?
      3. Think about the topic from your ideal customer's perspective.

        • Is there a story that gives background to the topic?
        • Is there a story that makes it more relevant?
        • Better yet, is there a problem faced by readers that this content solves?
      4. Reframe the topic to include the story or address the problem.
      5. Can you improve on this idea in any way?

        • Will additional information help?
        • Will visual elements help?
        • Does it relate to current news?
        • Does it relate to another trending topic, and could it shed light on that topic?
      6. Re-evaluate the topic after you've made these changes to the idea.

        • What is the point now?
        • Is it more relevant, useful, or entertaining?
        • Can it be improved any further?
      7. Keep going until you're sure the idea will engage or provide value to your readers.
    3. Don't overdevelop your idea

      It can be difficult for a writer to develop someone else's idea. So keep in mind, while most writers benefit from additional input, over-developing the content idea can stifle creativity.

      During this process, decide on the focus for each article, or give clarity to a broad topic, but allow the writer the freedom to develop ideas further during the writing phase.

  5. Write your developed ideas in Column C of your Editorial Planner

    Hold your planning session #5

    Replace broad topics with the ideas you developed during your planning session.

    Don't worry about developing titles until your content is written. Content ideas will continue to evolve during the writing phase, so titles will need to come last.

  6. Assign content to team members and set deadlines for its production.

    Make sure that each publication date has a piece of content planned for it. Each member of the content team needs to know:

    • What content they are responsible for.
    • The due date.
    • The workflow for producing the type of content they're working on. (For example, video production will have a different process than a blog post.)

    TIP: In most cases, the writer who comes up with an idea is the one who should write it. However, if the idea evolves extensively during the planning session — especially if the new ideas are contributed by another writer — it may be easier for the other writer to produce it.

  7. Determine the business objective of each piece of content.

    Once you're sure your content ideas will inform and engage your ideal customers, you need to do some additional planning to ensure it fulfills your business objectives.

    In Column E, "Objective," make sure each piece of content is assigned a business objective.

    Essentially, you need to answer the question, "What should this piece of content accomplish?" Your options include (but aren't restricted to):

    • Drive traffic to [landing page].
    • Generate interest in upcoming or new product.
    • Thought leadership.
    • Training, or how-to.
    • Entertain.
  8. Schedule content in your marketing calendar.

    After your planning session, record your plans in your marketing calendar, so you can monitor all marketing being produced, whether it's social media, emails, landing pages, or content.

    Hold your planning session #6

    TIP: Consider color-coding your marketing calendar for easy reference. You could code your entries by:

    • The type of content
    • The writer or team responsible for the content
    • The customer segment receiving the communication
    • The product/brand being promoted

How to Use your Editorial Planner

The Editorial Planner may be used by editors, content creators and your media team. It can be a useful resource for keeping the entire team on track.

How to Use your Editorial Planner #1
  1. After your planning sessions, make sure everyone on the content team has access to the updated Editorial Planner.

    Your writers need this information to be able to produce the ideas you developed in planning. Your graphic artists, webmaster, and other team members need to know what content is coming down the pipeline.

    And all of them need to know how to connect these ideas with readers on the one hand and business objectives on the other.

  2. After content goes live,
    track the results of your content.

    The Editorial Planner provides space to track views, comments and social shares.

    How to Use your Editorial Planner #2

    You may also want to track product sales that result from your content or the number of leads generated.

    In short, if there's a particular metric that's useful for you to rate your success, add it to your Planner. Then remain diligent about tracking it.

  3. Periodically, review this information with your content marketing team.

    Doing this will help you:

    • Know what content connects with your readers.
    • What content or topics go viral, so you can create more of them.
    • What content or topics don't, do you avoid producing them in the future.

    TIP: Your creative team can only help you create higher-quality content if they know how well their work is performing. Keep them involved in planning and strategy meetings. Let them help you drive your content machine.

That's it!

You've now have a killer planning process for creating high-value content that will attract and engage your ideal readers, while also growing your business.

This behind-the-scenes process is a high-level approach that's usually only seen in big brands. Which means you have what it takes to implement an impressive content marketing strategy — no matter how large your enterprise or what your resources are.

Of course, your next challenge is to produce that content. And that's exactly what we'll cover in the next chapter.

Click through to Chapter 4 now, and you'll learn the 6 steps of the creative process. These steps give you the framework for consistently creating high-quality content that can make you a thought leader in your industry and build your business. Sound good?

Here we go...