How to Create a Team-based Content Calendar

Ian Lurie

Editorial calendars suck. There. I said it.

They suck because they are wish lists, not sensible plans. They’re inflexible. They use terminology your team and clients don’t understand, like “10x” and “long form.”

They suck because we try to jam our marketing teams into calendars. That’s backward. We should build calendars based on our teams.

Instead of wrapping your team around a calendar, build a calendar around your team

You should create editorial calendars based on your team’s strengths and weaknesses: Subject matter expertise, writing specialties, efficiency, and skill. Sure, you hire based on what you want to create. But smart planners start by asking, “What resources do I know I can get? What additional resources do I need to complete the work? How will I close that gap??” That way you create an achievable calendar, not a thrill ride.

We should also have a single, consistent way to note what we’re going to need and when we’ll need it. Both your team and stakeholders must see the same information you do when they read the calendar. That way you create a plan everyone can follow.

My team has incorporated a structure like this into the planning process:

  • We classify using content types that reflect what we know we can produce
  • We categorize content using branding levels that reflect how sales-y a particular piece should be. That tells us what general skill set we’ll need (marketing copywriter versus tech writer, etc.)

Together, the structure creates an achievable content calendar and provides a common language to talk about that calendar. Here’s how it works:

Content Types

Content types don’t show resources required. Resources come and go. They are based on what’s possible at any point in time. They indicate level of complexity. They call out the sophistication of the deliverable.

If you’re a skier or mountain biker, you will know these labels right away. If you’re not, it’s OK. They’re easy to remember:

Content Types Notation Shows What's Possible
Content Types

Content Types Notation Shows What's Possible

Green Circle

Green circle content is whatever you can produce once per week. If your organization and resources let you create one blog post per week, then that’s your green circle. If the best you can do is one tweet per week, then that’s it.

Make it valuable to your customers. Make it polished. Make it consistent. Just be sure you actually make it.

What to expect: You want all content to generate business, of course. But keep expectations low. “Low” doesn’t mean giving up, or producing lousy content. It means a sustainable content set that creates momentum for prospective customers, for your team and for your stakeholders. Create green circle content to maintain engagement, build content hubs, and answer individual audience questions. Get readers to move “up” to blue square and black diamond. Typical green circle content rarely generates last-click leads or conversions.

Blue Square

Blue square content is whatever you can produce once per month. If you can write one blog post a month, that’s your blue square. If you can write a 3000-word interactive piece, that’s blue square. If you can build a sophisticated, public-facing toolset every month, that’s your blue square, and I envy you.

What to expect: If you can only create something once a month, it has to be a measurable business booster. It should generate shares and links, serve as the center of content hubs, and kick readers “up” to black diamond content. It may attract marketing qualified leads and other mid-level conversions. But remember, it’s whatever you can create once per month.

Black Diamond

Black diamond content is the toughest and carries the highest expectations. You can produce it once per quarter, at most. It might be a blog post (I’ve seen it). More likely it’s a high-production-value, high-value piece. It might be interactive. It might be a tool. It could be a video series. It might be an award-winning long-form piece that requires designers, writers and developer time.

What to expect: At this level of effort, have lofty goals. It should attract folks who have never read anything by your organization. Aim for quality lead generation, high-quality organic link growth, and media visibility. Ideally, this content is evergreen: It should hold its value for a long time.

What, No Examples?

Nope. Remember, content types are about what’s possible for your organization, not the one that just won a Webby Award for Best Longform Piece of the Century.

I will say that Black Diamond content often requires a designer, research time on the part of the writer or a separate subject matter expert, and possibly a developer. It might be a tool or a fancy blog post. A single writer can create green circle content. Blue square sits in between.

Know Your Team!!!

Remember: Instead of trying to wrap a team around a calendar, you’re building a calendar around a team. You need to know your team, and know who you can add to that team. You should set a content plan that’s a stretch. But be aware of what’s possible. Creating an editorial calendar that requires impossible growth and eye-popping productivity isn’t inspiring. It’s soul-sucking.

Branding Levels

Not all content is brandless or a sales pitch. We use three classifications:

Content branding levels show what you'll need

Content branding levels show what you'll need

In a calendar, branding levels are better guidance than, say, word counts. Combined with content types, branding levels tell content teams what to create. You can provide details like word counts later.

Lightly Branded

Lightly branded content may have your logo or use your blog page template. That’s it. No sales pitch and no advice that requires your services. This is the stuff that anyone can use whether they use your services or not.

Social media posts and tweets that offer tips are lightly-branded. So are some blog posts, long-form content, videos, etc. Anything may be lightly-branded, as long as there is zero sales pitch. This blog post might be considered lightly-branded content.

To create this kind of content, you need an ambidextrous writer who can create high-value, zero-pitch stuff. That might be a great marketing copywriter who is also a great nonfiction writer, or a “blogger.” Our marketing director, for example, was a comparative literature major. Someone at Portent might even be an ex-lawyer. Cough.

Moderately Branded

Moderately branded content is lightly branded but has your product, company or service as the focus. It doesn’t say “buy this!” but it does say “here’s how you’d accomplish this with our product, but you could use someone else’s if you prefer.”

Will it Blend is classic moderately branded content. It provides entertainment value using the brand’s product.

Lea & Perrins publishes recipes using their products. You could use any other sauce, though. That’s great moderately branded content. Great. Now I’m hungry.

Moderately branded content is least-understood and most valuable because it bridges the gap between lightly-branded material and your ultimate call to action. Think carefully about how you can work it into your content calendar.

To create moderately-branded content, you need a writer used to writing both marketing copy and lightly branded stuff. This is the toughest assignment.

Heavily Branded

Heavily branded content is the sales pitch. It’s the sales copy, product pages, the ad or the landing page. When people see heavily branded content, they know right away: This Is A Pitch. Our homepage is heavily branded content. This page on Specialized’s website, which lists their road bikes, is heavily-branded.

Great heavily-branded content requires a great marketing copywriter.

Somehow, heavily-branded content gets left out of most content plans. But we have to sell stuff, right? Include it, and plan for it. Marketing isn’t an existential experience. At some point, visitors must convert.

Why You Should Care About Branding Levels

Branding levels are easy shorthand for the kind of writers you’ll need: Marketing copywriters for heavily-branded, “bloggers” or whatever you want to call them for lightly-branded. Heavily-branded may require input from product managers. Moderately-branded will probably require all of the above, and demand your absolute best talent.

Branding levels are a strategic planning tool: They show proportion of resources assigned to lightly, moderately, and heavily-branded content. For example, on an e-commerce site with 100+ SKUs, I might go with 40/20/40 lightly/moderately/heavily branded content (don’t neglect heavily-branded content!!!!). On a site with only a few products, or a services site, I’ll recommend 60/20/20.

Regardless, I now know exactly what kind of writers, topics, and material I have, and those I need to gather.

Create The Content Structure

Now I can create a content structure. It tells me what type of content we’ll write, when we’ll write it, and the branding level of that content:

The content structure brings it all together

The content structure brings it all together

Yours may look completely different. Remember, I built this structure based on my team and what they can accomplish in a week, month, or longer. It’s based on my team’s specialties. If there are gaps, I can fill them.

Now, I can expand it to a full editorial calendar with topics, assignments, and titles (try Portent’s Title Maker if you need some title ideas). But I’ll always use the same content types and branding levels and base my plan on the structure I created above. The types and branding levels form a standard language everyone can understand. They clarify expectations and requirements for your team and other stakeholders.

You don’t have to use the vocabulary I’ve described. Just use something simple and consistent, and make sure it answers three questions:

  1. What can your team produce?
  2. How long will it take?
  3. What levels of branding do you need?

Do that, and you’ll create editorial calendars that don’t suck.

Ask me questions below.

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