How To Improve Your Editorial Strategy With Tara Clapper From SEMrush [ACM 009]
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Creating an editorial calendar can be a challenge. How can you decide how often to post to your blog without wasting time and energy—or leaving your readers wanting for either more content or more quality?
That’s the topic of today’s show: maintaining consistency and a high level of quality while publishing at the right intervals for maximum reader engagement.
Our guest is Tara Clapper, who previously managed the blog at SEMrush and now works for Express Writers. She has honed the blog publication process and has a lot of insight to share with our listeners on when to blog and how to create an effective editorial calendar.
Some of the topics that we’ll discuss today include:
- Tara’s background with SEMrush, including how she learned to balance quality with quantity when it came to posting on the blog.
- How far out to plan content, and how CoSchedule helps Tara’s whole team stay updated and focused on what’s coming up next.
- Why working about one month ahead works well for Tara, and how having that “cushion of days” helps when something urgent comes up that needs to be squeezed in.
- Why insisting on good pitches from guest authors saves time in the long run.
- Tips on organizing when you have a lot of different projects happening at once.
Quotes by Tara:
- “It’s hard to get ahead when you’re processing [too] much content.”
- “It’s very hard to wear all the hats, and CoSchedule helped me organize that.”
- “If [content writers] are writing what they want to explore, the blog posts are going to be better.”
Nathan: How often should you publish blog posts? It’s a simple question with a lot of different answers. And how can you hone your editorial strategy to publish consistent, quality content?
Hey, I’m Nathan from CoSchedule, and we’re going to figure this out. You’re about to rock an editorial schedule that will build a loyal fanbase and that will make you into a content marketing rockstar. That’s why I’ve asked Tara Clapper, the former blog editor at SEMrush, to share her story on blogging quantity, quality, consistency, and just getting ahead of schedule.
Tara honed SEMrush’s publishing process and has since moved on to a new position at Express Writers. She has tons of lessons learned to share with you today on the Actionable Content Marketing Podcast. Let’s take a listen.
Tara, thanks a lot for joining me today to share your thoughts on editorial strategy and how you manage the blog at SEMrush.
Tara: Thank you so much for having me today. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Nathan: Awesome. We’re glad to have you. Tara, give me the lowdown on SEMrush.
Tara: SEMrush is a digital marketing suite and we’re focused on competitive intelligence usually using keywords, keyword research, brand monitoring, and more. And, I work on the blog here.
The blog is kind of an extension of how our tools strive to help people and what we can do to not only bring people to us to learn more about the tools, but to educate, inform, and help the digital marketing community.
Nathan: Yeah, Tara. I really loved playing with SEMrush. Specifically, we here like the Keyword Difficulty Tool. It’s just a nice way for us to make sure that the content that we publish is going to help rank for the things that we want to write about.
You mentioned that you’re on the blog team. How long have you been with SEMrush?
Tara: I’ve been here about a year-and-a-half. I started in February of 2015. When I started here, our team was really small. We had a content manager who handled things mostly unrelated to the blog. We had a marketing assistant who helped with doing outreach to find guest bloggers. And then, we had the former blog editor who transitioned into a community manager role. They hired me on to kind of help with that.
Nathan: Oh, that’s great!
Tara: It was a really, really small team. Now, I think we’re up to nine or ten people so we’ve grown a lot.
Nathan: Oh wow, yeah. That is great. I guess you kind of need those people because the SEMrush blog is really big. Just thinking about when you started, I’m wondering how frequently was SEMrush publishing blog posts when you joined the team?
Tara: When I started, I was hired in as a technical editor although my background is actually more on publishing than marketing. I have some marketing experience, more on social.
When I started, I was hired as a technical editor and transitioned into a blog editor role. We were publishing about two to start, but they were not really good quality. Part of the reason we wanted two people working on the blog was to increase the quantity, and that was kind of the metric I was given when I started, like, “Hey, if you can hit six posts a day and run this blog yourself, then you’re performing to our standards.”
I started to look at the kinds of posts we were getting. Some of them were great, but some of them were pretty low quality, even with somebody doing outreach as half of her job to find blog authors. It was a bit of a challenge with the quality.
Now, we are doing two posts a day again. We started at two; we went up to six. I hit that goal. I said, “Okay, now that I’ve hit the goal, and I’ve shown you what I’m doing, quality is more important than quantity. Please, let’s scale back and let me work on some other stuff.”
I went ahead and scaled back to two. Right now, we are publishing usually two posts a day; occasionally one, occasionally three. For the most part, two posts per day.
Nathan: Yeah, that sounds crazy, publishing six posts a day. That’s a lot!
Tara: It was a lot of work. It was a lot of late hours, but I knew to kinda get what I wanted out of the blog, I needed to first hit the goals that had been given to me when I started. I just kind worked really hard on it.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s a great goal. With you publishing those two to six posts a while back, how far ahead were you working with content planning?
Tara: We were about two days ahead. Usually, I think at best, we were a week ahead. At worst, we would get in and be like, “Well, we have one post scheduled for today.” That was kind of scary.
Our former community manager took a more active role in editing, so it wasn’t quite an emergency situation. It wasn’t like if I called out, there was nobody to help. And we’re not in that situation either right now, but she did do a lot still with the blog and editing. But we should have been out further. It was six posts a day, so it’s hard to get ahead when you’re processing that much content.
Nathan: Yeah, I totally understand the challenge of trying to get ahead, and what you were working with is pretty intense. The publishing schedule is very big. And so I know that you talked about going up to six posts a day and coming back down to two. How did you decide that publishing two blog posts a day was the right consistency for SEMrush, instead of six?
Tara: Well, we played with the numbers a little bit and noticed that two high quality posts per day were bringing in about the same amount of views as six “nah!” posts a day. And also we’re understanding that on our own social channels, as well as on the SEMrush Twitter and Facebook channels especially, there’s a limit to how much we can push and how much we can promote of our own content.
And so more than six (or six or more) can be a bit of a challenge, but two per day – now my social media manager knows she can go in there and look at anything on the blog and feel confident that it’s okay to promote that kind of post.
It’s also taking a lot less time. So when we would get six low quality posts in, they would be very difficult to edit. A lot of them would have to go through a proofreader before I would even look at it. But now, we get posts that are written in native or near-native English – very easy to read. And now I just flat-out reject them if they’re not close to the standards.
So I went ahead and made blog guidelines. I asked our designer – now that we have a designer – to make them into a nice PDF. And so I can actually send those guidelines to people who inquire about writing for the blog.
Nathan: Yeah, that sounds like a really solid strategy, if you ask me. I love the idea of being data-driven. And then also, the standards for your content just makes sense.
Tara: Yeah, absolutely. And it really helps cut down the time it takes to edit. And you can put the time into other things like creating posts of your own because I really admire HubSpot’s blog. I really admire your blog CoSchedule. And I see how much work goes into creating that content from your internal teams.
We still want to have guest posts here on the SEMrush blog, but I fought really hard to kinda make sure that there’s a big space for internal blog posts and the voices of our employees because we have a lot of experts here, who have some great things to say.
So it allows for some creativity to publish less guest posts per day and to make sure they’re really high quality. Because those guest authors really need to be on par with our internal authors, and vice versa.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s an excellent thought. So with that, since you’re cutting back just a little bit from your frequency, you’re concentrating on upping your quality and writing a little bit more for yourself – I’m wondering, how far out are you planning content right now?
Tara: So right now, we’re about a month out, and we’re putting together larger content strategies so that we can have – hopefully next year, we’ll have a yearly editorial calendar, where you can actually see (even though not every single thing will be planned out) – you can see, like, “Hey, during this time of the year, we might want holiday content.” Stuff like that.
And CoSchedule’s a huge part of how we’re doing that – at how we’re integrating teams across multiple countries to figure this out. Multiple time zones – because we have an office in St. Petersburg. We have an office here in Philadelphia. And so sometimes if I have a question for somebody at 5:00PM, they’re not in the office yet. They’re still asleep. And vice versa.
So we use a lot of communication tools, but CoSchedule’s becoming more and more relevant. And when I started, we didn’t have CoSchedule. We had one paper calendar. And as time moved on and we were doing six blog posts a day, I was like, “No way! We can’t do six posts a day on one calendar. There’s no way for me to assign things to be pushed on social media or to direct people to do anything.” I was an editor without a lot of editorial control. And it became very confusing to myself and to especially my internal contributors about what could go live when. And CoSchedule’s been huge in making that happen.
I actually started – I have my own blog. It’s called The Geek Initiative. And it’s all about women and geek culture. And I started using CoSchedule just on a trial and ended up really liking it for that blog ‘cause we publish a lot less content than we do on SEMrush.
But it’s helpful because I’m wearing so many hats there. I’m managing the social media. I’m editing the blog. I’m going to events and meeting with influencers in entertainment. And it’s very hard to wear all these hats. And CoSchedule helped me organize that and keep an eye on it.
So I had success with it there and then recommended using it here at SEMrush. And it’s taken off. We’ve done really well. And now our other teams want to use it too.
Nathan: Yeah. That sounds like a great idea. Well, you had mentioned that you were using a paper calendar and that you also have a remote team, and something like that just doesn’t scale.
Tara: Yeah. Not at all. Not at all. So the other team knows – they’ve always known that the blog editor is the one who assigns the posts and the one who schedules everything and use [0:10:38] the schedule, but we’re really big on transparency here at SEMrush. It’s really hard to be transparent to a team halfway across the world when everything you’re doing is on paper.
But at least, with CoSchedule, I can give them a log-in, and they can see exactly where there are spaces on the calendar. They’re welcome to go in there and claim a space on the calendar or just email me and say, “Hey, I noticed you’re not publishing two posts yet on Thursday. Could you sneak this one in for me?”
And then I’ll let them know, “Yeah. Sure. Go ahead and send it over.” So it’s been a huge help with the transparency and the communication that’s really important.
Nathan: Yeah. I absolutely love that idea. So you’re planning far enough out that you can help your team claim spots – I just wanna ask, why is planning content a month out from now important for you at SEMrush?
Tara: There are two reasons. First of all, I’m under a lot of pressure to answer emails in a timely manner. And a good three-quarters of my email is, “Hey! I sent you a blog submission a week ago. I haven’t heard from you. Could you please follow up?”
And we’re actually in the process of hiring a second editor to help me out with that ‘cause it is a really large volume.
So part of it is, I want to respond to people in a timely manner, and that means, if we’re only doing two posts per day and I’m responding to people as quickly as I should be, then we’re just gonna naturally schedule out pretty far.
So part of it’s volume. Part of it is also – the blog is not the only thing I’m working on. So I’m also implementing a larger editorial strategy. I’m writing my own content. I’m coaching the marketing team through writing great content for the blog. We’re a really collaborative team, so I contribute as often as I can to our team’s ideas or whenever somebody else needs help with something. I have lots of other stuff to edit – not just blog posts.
So scheduling a month out gives me time to do all that stuff. Like today for example, Paul who does webinars on other channels – he sent me over an entire folder of different biographies he uses and stuff like that, that he sends out to other channels, when he wants to speak on them. So things like that – that go out to other companies, other brands – those really need a copy edit before they go out.
And he went ahead and sent that to me, and I took some time to look at it. And it took as long to edit as a blog post might, but it had to be done. And I’m the one that’s here to do it.
So scheduling so far out really clears my schedule enough that I can make sure that needs are met – like the editing needs of the marketing team. We do have other competent editors on the team, but it’s primarily my responsibility. So I try to do that stuff as much as I can.
Nathan: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I’ve heard of people calling something like that a “cushion” of days. And for exactly that reason that the blog is one operation that you have, but you have lots of different projects in the works that you need to manage your time around.
Tara: Exactly. And with something like Mobilegeddon, right? We knew that was coming. Google announced that it was coming, and we had a certain amount of weeks to prepare our website to accommodate that.
So we have a great technical team that handles that kind of thing here at SEMrush, but I still need to keep my eye on it. And I also need to think about the content. So if there’s a change that affects content in digital marketing, not only do I have to worry about my blog, I also have to worry about the content about that topic that’s going to be appearing on my blog.
So when that happens (it was before we were scheduled really far out) and I was like, “Allright, we’re going to rearrange everything. We’re doing a Mobilegeddon Week to make sure everyone’s prepared and to see how it shakes out.” And it was a little chaotic reorganizing the blog for that.
And now that we’re planning far out, if they announce something like that, I can be like, “Oh okay. No big deal. We can just move a couple things around here and there. Schedule in some time to make sure we have our own housekeeping taken care of with our blog.” That kind of stuff. So it really helps with big announcements, industry-shaping things – stuff like that.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s excellent advice. And so one of the things that you’ve mentioned a couple times now is it is important to plan out. I’m wondering – you kind of started with being only a couple of days out and now you’re a month ahead, which is fantastic. Congratulations, by the way!
Tara: Thank you.
Nathan: That’s a huge achievement. I know that that’s a problem for lots of content marketers. So I have to ask, what did you do to go from only having a few things ready to go a couple of days from now to being able to have a calendar full of content for an entire month?
Tara: A few different things. Obviously CoSchedule, again, was super important because, not only did it save time, it allows me to actually show people what I’m doing. So if somebody wants to know, “Oh, do you have a spot here on the calendar?” They can just look themselves. So that’s been a huge help, too.
But other than that, it’s a lot of teamwork. It’s a lot of trust because, like I said, I had to prove that I could meet those volume requirements before I was allowed to really take control of quality requirements and to prove that that was important. So once I was able to do that, it became a lot more about managing my own time, managing my own projects.
And every marketing director that I’ve worked for has gladly understood the importance of being far enough ahead on your schedule to have time to do other stuff because when Martin, our Director for Marketing, comes to me with another project, I could say, “Sure. I have time for that. No problem. I’m scheduled a month out.” So that’s a huge help.
And it’s created a lot more teamwork. So if I need help editing, I could just ask for help. It also works because since the quality of content is so high, more members on my team can work on it. I’m not just sending it to our freelance copy editor and having him try to piece something together out of something really weak that we were sent. Instead it’s like an easy post by a native speaker, and it’s just really already coming to us in good shape. And there are just really copy editing – something that’s already worked.
The other thing I’ve been doing more with external authors and internal is I’m expecting a formal pitch. Unless I’ve worked with you a lot, I don’t wanna get just a title. I want at least three or four bullet points about what you are going to talk about. I want examples. I want data. You can’t just tell the story unless you have data. And I’m not really an analytical person myself, but I know how to do research. I know how to spin that into a story. And I expect other creative people to do the same thing.
So having those high expectations from my authors has been a big part of it, too. I spend more time working with them before they get something to me versus afterwards. Even with the revision request, it’s usually not very time-consuming for me. What’s time-consuming is the pitch process, making sure they have examples – stuff like that – ‘cause then when it gets to me, we’re good to go, and I usually don’t even have to email them back until I’ve said, “Hey! Here’s when it’s scheduled for. The system will email you when it’s live.” So that’s helped a lot, too.
Nathan: I absolutely love that idea. It seems to reflect an idea that I’ve read in the book Linchpin by Seth Godin, where he tries to thrash a project at the beginning to prevent work at the tail end trying to edit something up to standards.
Tara: Yeah. So my background is actually more in publishing than marketing. So with a traditional publication – I used to work on academic journals. I used to work with self-published authors as well. When you’re working in those scenarios (or like on a traditional magazine), you have a date by which you need to get everything in, in order to publish on time. And I’m just more accustomed to that.
Yeah, I’m organized. I’m deadline-driven. Everybody says that, whether they’re talking about themselves or in a job interview or whatever. I’m not the best. I’m not the most organized, most deadline-driven person ever, but I understand that you need to stick to some kind of system to make it work that way. So that’s kind of – I’ve tried to bring my publishing background into marketing to make that work, and I think that’s really helped the blog.
Nathan: Yeah, marketers are now publishers. That is a really good skill to bring into our niche of content marketing.
Tara: Exactly. And I’ve studied publishing at the master’s degree level. I don’t have a completed degree, but I’ve done a fair amount of courses just in publishing itself. And you’re expected in these courses and when you finish your program – you’re expected to be able to make a publication by yourself start to finish.
So I’m not a graphic designer. I’ll never be a graphic designer. But I had to learn my way around Photoshop. And if you want to be an editor, in publishing especially with so much downsizing and outsourcing, you need to know how to do all of those things.
And similarly, in marketing, even though there’s a little bit more leeway with your knowledge gaps, there’s still that expectation that you know a little bit of everything. I could probably manage social media. I’m not going to do as great a job as our social media manager, but I could do it if I had to. I know the basics about various digital marketing topics, especially the areas that our tool covers, but that expectation is just huge.
And you have to find the balance in your team. There are some times when I say, “Look, maybe I don’t need all the Google certifications – maybe just the first one or two because how much does that really relate to my job specifically?”
But on the other hand, I really embrace the opportunities we’re given here to learn more about our specific topics and areas of expertise. So not only am I learning about blogging, about editing, I can kind of just explore whatever interests me as long as it’s related to digital marketing. And that’s really important to making sure your team grows well.
Nathan: Yeah. I am fascinated by that. I love the idea of “Never stop learning. Never stop improving.” And how you’ve done that with publishing with guests is really impressive to me. I mean, you guys have a really big blog, and a lot of that is guest-driven content.
I was wondering just a little bit more ‘cause you’ve been talking about your own team and that there are multiple different teams at SEMrush that help you with content marketing. How do you use your knowledge then to coach SEMrush staff for those different teams on how to get that really great content from them?
Tara: Well, every other month, I do open content meetings. So they’re just kind of brainstorming meetings. And you can come in – anybody in SEMrush can come in – and just sit down and have a chat informally about what kind of content you’d like to write, what you’d like to see, how you might integrate a podcast into what we’re doing on the blog or video (because that’s super important too.) And we just sort of brainstorm.
So there are different things that I do to get content for the blog from our internal teams. Some of them just submit stuff to me. And when people just submit stuff without telling me the topic first, they need to be more flexible when it publishes because it wasn’t part of the plan basically. Some of the content – I have a heads up on what it is. Some of it go through the pitch process. Some of it – I assign.
So we have a content team here in the US office, and I can assign a specific thing to them. Like we had a lot of successful content on Snapchat and making money with Snapchat. And so I was like, “Hey, I wanna start competing with our own organic search ranking on this, so we can kind of dominate the topic ‘cause it’s huge.” I saw the trend. So I assigned a specific article to a content writer.
But otherwise, like things that are generally becoming more popular or making a lot of changes like Facebook Live or Instagram or Facebook Instant Articles – stuff like that. I can just give the topic, and a good content writer will come up with some pitches based on that. And I like that better because it allows them to write what they want. And if they’re writing what they want to explore, then the blog post is gonna ultimately be better.
Nathan: That makes a lot of sense. So what I’m hearing is that you have just tons of different projects in the works any given time from internal posts to helping with some of those webinar things that you were talking about. How do you organize all of it?
Tara: Our team has started using Trello, and we do Agile Marketing, which we’re still a little bit new to. But we are catching on to Trello and using that to kind of organize projects.
And I’ve noticed some redundancy because some of the tasks that I put into CoSchedule are also gonna show up in Trello, but we’re sort of kinda working through that. And the team understands that I’m living more in CoSchedule than I am in any other planning program. So that’s kinda how it is. We all have our other programs that we live in, but we converge on Trello.
We also do daily stand-up meetings, where we talk about what we did yesterday and what we’re gonna do today. And that kind of keeps each other informed. And we do a lot of communication on Slack and just a lot of collaboration. So for example, I’ve appeared on SEMrush webinars, speaking about blogging. I did a webinar on DC versus Marvel and how they do their marketing. That was really fun.
So when we come up with good ideas, we take advantage of them. It doesn’t always only live on external channels.
Nathan: Yeah. I love that idea. It sounds super smart. Collaborate. Make sure that everyone is pitching in. I’m wondering. What results have you noticed after optimizing your editorial strategy?
Tara: Right now, it’s not fully implemented, and I’m technically still the blog editor. I’m hoping to go for more of a managing editor role, but I have noticed people, over time, have become much more open to CoSchedule.
And a lot of people at SEMrush don’t have a publishing background; they have a marketing background. So I have a lot to learn from them, and I’ve spent my time here learning a lot about core marketing concepts. But they’ve also finally opened up to learning a lot about how a publication is run and how those skills can benefit our blog. And that’s been a big help, too.
Nathan: Yeah. Tara, it sounds like you’re super organized over there. So thanks a lot for sharing all of your thoughts on – all of these (editorial strategy, how you’ve been getting organized, managing all of these different projects.) Thanks again. This was fun.
Tara: Thank you so much again for having me.
Nathan: You just heard from the former blog editor at SEMrush, Tara Clapper. You can catch this episode’s show notes in full transcript at coschedule.com/podcast. And you can also listen to all of the other actionable advice there, too.
This conversation with Tara taught me a lot about getting ahead on our calendar, planning to publish more content, and organizing the entire process behind the scenes. Thanks for sharing, Tara!
November 22, 2016