3 Components of a Content Marketing
Editorial Calendar that Works

image of content marketing world 2012

I’ve been in the publishing industry for more than a dozen years now, and along the way I’ve noticed a couple of things about editorial calendars.

First, they are utterly critical for any content marketing program to be successful.

Second, most businesses don’t use them.

New social media platforms are sexy. New marketing ideas are sexy. Calendars, for most of us … not so sexy.

Let’s be honest … even though content marketing has been around in various forms for hundreds of years, most marketers are short-term campaign driven types — similar to what you might see on Mad Men — who throw some social media tools on top of it all.

But that’s not content marketing. Content marketing is not a short-term campaign … it’s a long-term strategy to attract, convert, and retain customers.

You can’t have a long-term strategy without some tools to manage it all. And one of the most effective tools you can use is the editorial calendar.

So let’s take a look at how this works …

The 3 basic components of an editorial calendar that works

Traditional marketing departments used to gear up around the latest product push. But more and more marketing resources are starting to look like publishing operations, similar to what you’d see out of Inc. magazine or Entrepreneur.

This change is exactly the reason we are covering this topic in-depth at Content Marketing World this year.

Because it is longer-term, and because content marketing often involves multiple content producers, customers, and outside influencers. It can be tricky to keep track of all the stories you are telling and developing, and all of the formats (online or offline) you’re developing them for.

Note: Though I’ve use the terms spreadsheet and document below, there are many online tools that can work as your customized editorial calendar. Most of us start with simple tools such as Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) combined with a WordPress tool like the Editorial Calendar plugin. As your business progresses, you may move up to paid software-as-a-service offerings like KaPost, Central Desktop, Contently, Compendium, Zerys, and Skyword (just to name a few).

1. Understanding what an editorial calendar is and is not

The editorial calendar is much more than just a calendar with content assigned to dates.

A good editorial calendar maps content production to our buyer personas (who we want to sell to), the engagement cycle (delivering appropriate content based on where the prospect is in the buying process), and the channels that we use.

Beyond dates and headlines, your editorial calendar should make room for:

  • A prioritized list of what you are publishing based on the content strategy you’ve developed. This may contain existing content, content that will be redesigned or repackaged, content that will come from partners, or content yet to be developed. It’s your inventory.
  • Assigned content producer(s) and/or editors responsible for the content. Here you name the people responsible for producing the content. If you have multiple editors, you identify them as well.
  • The channel(s) for the content. A listing of formats and channels targeted for the content. For example, you may have an blog post that is part of an eBook series that you are publishing on Slideshare. You may want to identify if you will also deliver pieces through multiple distribution outlets like your email autoresponder, or social sites like Twitter or Google+.
  • Meta data. These are “tags” you assign to keep track of what you’re working on and what role it plays for you. The number of these you want to include is really up to you. You’ll probably want to include tags for important aspects of the content such as “target persona” or “engagement cycle” so that you can make sure you’re balancing your editorial to your overall goals. You may also want to include columns (or tags) for things like content type (for example white paper, video, email) or even SEO keywords.
  • Dates for both creation and publishing. These include the dates that the content is due to the editor, along with target dates for publishing. These should be mapped to your story map. As you become more sophisticated, you may want to include the refresh date (a triggered date to update the content when needed).

(If you work for a larger organization, you may want to add workflow steps including legal, fact checking, proofreading, or other elements that will affect your content creation and management process.)

As you begin to assemble the elements you want to have in your editorial calendar, remember that the calendar is a management tool.

Include only the elements you need to facilitate your process. For example, if you write one blog post a week and two email messages a month to support your small business, there’s no reason you need to overcomplicate your editorial calendar. Keep it as simple as you can.

2. Organizing the calendar

Set your calendar document up in the way that works best for you.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that you’ll have one spreadsheet for the year — and that each tab will be a month. Across the columns you might have:

  • Content headline
  • Content type
  • The buyer persona you’re writing this piece for
  • Person who will write/create the content
  • Date due
  • Person who will edit the content
  • Channels — where does this get published?
  • Those “meta data” tags
  • Publish date
  • Status (perhaps indicated by green, yellow, or red)
  • Any notes
  • Metrics (e.g., comments posted, pageviews, downloads, etc.)
  • Call to Action (the primary action or behavior you’ve asked for)

Finally, as separate documents — or even tabs within your editorial calendar — you may want to include “brainstorming” elements (e.g., ideas that are under consideration or new stories that come up during the process). The editorial calendar can be a great tool for capturing creativity as well.

In the end, your editorial calendar will most likely become the most frequently used tool in your process. And whether it’s a combination of documents, a single spreadsheet, an online production tool, or just a monthly email that you send to your team — the key is that it works for you. In the end, whatever helps to smooth out your process and keep you on track is the best editorial calendar format.

3. Developing the editorial style guide

Obviously, when we talk about a “calendar,” the first thing we think of is a guide for planning what content gets created when.

But your “calendar” has another important function. You’ll want to develop an editorial style guide as a tool for your content creators, editors, and producers. (Yes, even if those people are all you.)

This style guide can also develop into a social conversation style guide (in other words, a social media policy), which will provide guidelines for how people should respond and converse.

As more people start “telling the story” of your brand, you need to be sure that they have the right tools and training to properly communicate your brand’s voice. You also need to police them to make sure they are keeping to that voice.

And even if you’re flying solo right now, keeping your editorial voice consistent will help your content feel more professional and trustworthy. And it makes it much easier if you ever do want to bring other writers in.

Like the continuing story, it’s easy to let tone, quality, and style slip bit by bit — until the story is way off track. This is where your editorial style guide will come into play.

Here are some key things to include:

  • The overall tone and voice of your content marketing. Who are you and what do you convey in your content?
  • The average (or minimum/maximum) length of pieces developed.
  • Branding guidelines. How to refer to the company, product lines, individuals, etc.

For grammar, style, and word usage, you can also choose to conform to guides such as the Associated Press Style Guide. In addition, many content marketing strategists — especially those focused on the web — are using the Yahoo Style Guide.

How about you?

How strategic are you about your content creation? Do you use a content calendar? An editorial guide? Do you try to follow a long-term plan, or do you mostly wing it?

Let us know about your experiences in the comments …

PS.

Note from Sonia: If you’re ready to tackle your content creation in a deeper, more strategic way, Brian Clark and I both recommend the Content Marketing World conference, the largest gathering of content marketing professionals in the world. The conference is held in Columbus, Ohio in September, and Brian and I will both be speaking this year. You can save $200 on the conference registration if you sign up before the Early Bird period ends on May 31. Brian and I would love to see you there!

About the Author: Joe Pulizzi is founder of Content Marketing Institute, which puts on the largest in-person content marketing event in the world: Content Marketing World.  You can find Joe on Twitter @JoePulizzi. If you ever see Joe in person, he’ll be wearing orange.

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Comments

  1. Right now I wing it. But I’m in the process of setting up a schedule to write more and better content. One of the hardest things I have found is to stick to a schedule. I do have a simple plan that is a work in progress. It needs a lot of work though.
    1. Write one post a week.
    2. Prepare it the week before.
    3. Have a list of references for research handy.
    4. Stay focused on the task.

    • Joe Pulizzi :

      Hi Frankie…the goal is to do something that works for you. Sounds like this is working for you, so great!

  2. Thanks Joe. I wish I followed an editorial calendar strategy.

    What I tend to do is follow a content series strategy.

    1. Figure out what problems people face. What gaps in knowledge do they have.
    2. Plan a series of posts on that topic. Think of writing a table of content for a book… use that same thinking to write titles for a series of posts.

    Sometimes I focus all my effort in covering just one series at a time. Other times, I run 2-3 series on the blog – so usually – no one except me know that all the posts form a series.

  3. Hello Joe.

    Very good points. Although I am a content writer up till now I haven’t been paying much attention to a long-term content strategy whether it pertains to my business or my clients’ business. Your website is a great help.

    I think bigger editorial calendars can be reduced to smaller ones – let us say a monthly editorial calendar or even a biweekly. It will be easier for small businesses to think in terms of content strategy.

  4. I use my editorial calendar to keep track of guest blogging opportunities and the kind of content those bloggers are expecting from me. Each blog has a unique audience and the content needs to be geared for them. Am I writing for the small business owner or another SEO professional? What kind of problems/issues do they have?

  5. Good afternoon!

    Well, there was me thinking I was being a bit ‘anally retentive’ in my hanging on to a diary for scheduling things and all the time lots of people are at it!
    At least now I can yell with impunity ‘where’s my editorial calendar?’ – sounds much better than ‘who’s nicked my diary?’
    Having a business that changes with the seasons some sort of schedule is a must for certain things – after that I just ‘wing it’ like everyone else…

  6. Good info Joe.

    There are too many copywriting gurus that tell beginners to use an editorial calendar, but don’t that explain how to create and use one in as much detail as you. Without an editorial calendar, content marketing has no purpose. The editorial calendar defines the very strategy that a business is using to win over their website visitors.

    I especially like your idea of meshing the style guide right into the calendar (something I’ve kept separate in the past). Thanks again for the article!

  7. Joe, I’ve been using a tool called DivvyHQ for a while and highly recommend it – I’ve moved everything, online, offline, email scheduling, blog posts, outside writing and publishing deadlines, etc to it and I can give outside support staff access to the parts that I need them to be involved in.

    • Nice one! DivvyHQ looks awesome for those managing a team of writers.

      I’ve been using Wunderkit which isn’t really meant for use as an editorial calendar. But I use it to brainstorm ideas, set dates, et cetera.

    • John…ack! I forgot to mention the great folks at DivvyHQ. Their tool is great and I highly recommend it. Thanks for reminding me.

  8. Perfect timing…I swear you guys are reading my mind. I was just getting ready to revamp the ‘ol editorial calendar and saw this post waiting for me in my inbox.

    I sometimes get push back on whether an editorial calendar is needed or if it is simply “getting ready to get ready” busy-work. This will come in handy…thanks!

  9. I too have been winging it for my twice weekly posts. I’ve done a few series as Ankesh has described. And Rishi hit the nail on the head by describing the excellent way you described ‘how’ to create an editorial calendar instead of just saying it’s necessary. For me, the biggest take-away is that I can be more ‘strategic’ going forward.

  10. This is an extremely helpful post.

    I am, for lack of a better or official term, the editor of GM’s sustainability blog. I’ve been at it for about a year. Right now, my editorial calendar consists of an Excel file with dates, headlines & the name of the author. That’s it. It does the job, but it could be so much more.

    I’m going to incorporate some of your tips — a word count, for one — to make it more strategic and succinct.

  11. Thanks for shining the spotlight on content editorial marketing calendars. I think those of us who fly solo sometimes forget about having a strategy for content marketing. We’re focused on ‘the big picture’ that details sometimes fall through the cracks.

    When I began blogging in 2008, I used Windows Calendar to keep me on track with my posting schedule. However, this has changed. I still use my Windows Calendar for certain reminders, but I started using Evernote to help me ‘sort out’ headlines, opening paragraphs, closing paragraphs, article and blog post angles, marketing ideas, etc.

    I pay attention to Google Alerts, blog topics in my niches, comments, and trends. This helps me to understand what information readers need now and how I can help alleviate and provide solutions to their problems. I’m still working out the kinks, but I’ve come a long way since 2008.

  12. Using my 20/20 hindsight goggles, I can see now that my short term marketing mindset was handicapping my long term content marketing goals because I wasn’t using the right set of tools.

    It’s a myth to think that all bloggers are computer whizzes and productivity experts.
    In the early days, I found myself drawn to the yellow glow of the almighty sticky note. Now I equate that organizational plan to the idea of successfully herding cats.

    I finally realized that I needed an organizational system in place to manage my thoughts, ideas, and goals. Like Amandah, I use Evernote to store all of my data because it syncs with my computer and iPhone. I then use my graphic design background to create spreadsheets and templates to everything on track.

    Thanks for helping me streamline my process Joe. I will be refining my spreadsheet with several of your ideas.

    • Nice Colleen…I must say, I’m starting to dig evernote too.

      • I just signed up the free 30 day trial of Divvy per John’s recommendation. The site’s design and functionality is giving me some more great ideas for blogging templates.

        P.S. I told the Divvy people I heard about them from CMI :-D

  13. I’ve been going back and forth trying to decide whether to use an editorial calendar for my site or not. I know many A-listers or up-and-coming a-list bloggers *don’t* use them. Many of them have tested publishing content less frequently to see if they see a drop in visitors or engagement, and most haven’t.

    Derek Halpern of Social Triggers is one who publishes only a few times a month, but his site has flourished over the past year.

    Don’t get me wrong, I believe the organization and focus that an editorial calendar can provide is extremely beneficial, but how important do you all feel it is to maintain a strict schedule for it?

    • Hi Brock…to be honest, this is not nearly as critical to a smaller enterprise…but anything beyond the solo blogger, it’s a must. For example, we work with about 100 contributors at CMI, and without an editorial calendar we couldn’t function, let alone map which type of content to which types of personas or business objectives.

      Derek’s blog is great btw!

      • Why thank you… to both of you. Much appreciated! And to Joe, you’re right. When you’re dealing with 100 contributors, an editorial calendar is an absolute must. You live and die by that calendar.

  14. I have a mental calendar that I follow for my blog, for Twitter and for Facebook, though it is not as complex as the one you outlined above. I agree that content marketing is at its most successful when it is done systematically, rather than all at once when a product, service or event is launching.

  15. I write web content for myself and a few clients. I use my editorial calendar to stay on track and keep fresh content on my sites.

    I created a spreadsheet for scheduling blog posts, important social media updates and promotions. It also includes national holidays and other important dates. I am constantly changing it and this post will help me make some improvement to the format.

  16. Hi,

    Great post. I don’t use anything that extensive, but I do plan a calendar out for the entire year with monthly topics determined and then curate and write from there. It’s been a great guide. I’m interested in your WP tool, and I will be downloading shortly. Thanks

  17. Great article. I’m at the beginning of my blogging/web journey and I have a rought spredsheet but the editorial calendar will be great and will give me a plan to follow. I find that one of the biggest challenges to being my own boss is being discriplined to produce my content!

  18. Great stuff as usual. One grammatical/editorial question. Should the title be “3 Components…that Work?” Since ‘editorial calendar’ is part of a prepositional phrase? Or are my 11th grade English rules rusty?

    • Grammatically speaking, it’s the marketing calendar that works, not the 3 components. :) If the latter, I’d probably have rearranged the headline to something like 3 Components that Work to Create an Editorial Calendar.

  19. The editorial calendar is a topic I mention often when working with my clients. They know they’ve got to get something down but creating a schedule and gathering topics are the top challenges facing business owners. This article supports some of the advice I’ve shared with my readers–I’ll share this with them in an upcoming newsletter.

    A big benefit to creating an editorial calendar is the ‘brainstorming’ or mental thought processes that are stirring in the back of the mind as the team puts together their calendar. Those little thoughts can add up and fill a calendar fast–or be enough to add an extra blog post a month or whatever the publish date is. Don’t discount those quiet thoughts. They are fun and can be exactly what your readers need.

  20. Hi Joe,

    Nice article! We must be on the same wavelength — I’ve been a huge advocate of editorial calendars for years, and I just published an article focusing on the topic aspect of what should go into the calendar. It’s entitled “To Grow Your Audience, Become a DJ for Your Content” and it talks about how to identify what topics to focus on most, as well as how to inject both upcoming and past content into your publishing mix. I think it’s a great counterpart to this piece.

    Best,
    Hilary

  21. Jamie Wyant :

    I keep a separate editorial calendar for each of my clients as a workspace in our project management system. I developed a project template that pretty captures the process in a stepwise manner:

    Prepare->Write–>Optimize–>Review–>Publish.

    Each new article idea is a “project.” I can manipulate priorities and due dates by dragging and dropping. Images, supporting documents, and team comments are easily attached and tracked. Style guidelines and even links to writer’s “block” clearing exercises (thanks Copyblogger) are right there too.

    It’s made a big difference in how I keep organized ( I am indeed organized for the first time ever) and boosted productivity – no more trying to remember where I tucked that image file or link. Plus, it nags me in ever so gentle a way.

    Regards,
    jamie

  22. I’ve been using my Google Calendar for my Editorial Calendar, it has been a great start. I can add others to the calendar and they know when and what they need to write about. This article is really helpful though, I can see some meat to add to the bones of what I’m already doing. I hope to add another author and definitely need to set up some guidelines. Thanks.

  23. I don’t follow and editorial calendar I just write as I’m led but having one will surely make me more organized and improve my productivity but, what I write about simply falls out of me when I feel like it!

  24. To be honest right now I have been mostly winging it with some idea in the back of my mind but I want to establish a strong editorial calendar so I can be more effective. Thanks for all of these resources I will go to work at making this happen!

  25. Great article. I especially like how you explained what an editorial calendar is and and what it is not. I think, for so many, it seems like “just a calendar,” but more than that, it is a planning tool for the content strategy. Thanks! -Deborah

  26. Setting up my calendar just now. Will deifnitely use ideas from the article.

  27. This was immensely helpful. I work for a small nonprofit and am the only one charged with writing material for facebook. Which is then reviewed, changed and posted (this process is out of my hands). A volunteer is writing a newsletter, for two months now. I’m at a lost for tying everything in – I’m usually the last person to hear about anything going on. How do I convince upper-management that I need to be in the know and be privy to what will be on the newsletter, have copies of letters before the go out and info about nonprofit production, partners, and donors – so I can facebook about them? It’s a huge creative challenge to put content on facebook because all I have to go on is the online calendar. Most of the time I come across items or hear of things after the fact and it’s to late to post or create stories from it.

    • Hi Rachel,
      Can you suggest to the management that coordinating your content and events would make everyone’s job easier? That way, everyone builds off of the other and ideas can be generated from sharing with others in the team. Also, tell them why an editorial calendar is so important.