How To Plan A Marketing Calendar That Actually Works
I’m going to be blunt.
A lot of marketing calendars are really tough to use simply because they aren’t designed to be marketing calendar tools. And that makes it really tough to plan a marketing calendar that actually works:
- PDFs: Printing a free marketing calendar template like this one from CoSchedule is a great way to start your planning—to get the brainstorming going. From here, you’ll likely want a digital version that’s a bit easier to update with your constant changes.
- Excel: Here’s a free marketing calendar template from Content Marketing Institute to get you started on a digital version. But it’s a bit difficult to get your team to use it when you have it locked all day as you plan. :/
- Google Docs: A spreadsheet in Google Docs/Sheets like this marketing calendar template from Crackerjack Marketing will help you solve the locking problem you’d experience with Excel. This still doesn’t feel like a marketing calendar, though, without a visual way to see your upcoming projects.
- Google Calendar: You could also build a marketing calendar in Google Calendar.
The thing is…
I’m sure you can’t imagine copying and pasting all of those from Google Calendar into your different social networks—what a time suck! Not to mention copying and pasting all of your other content, too…
So What Will Help You Plan An Awesome Marketing Calendar?
So where am I going with all of this?
I just read dozens of other posts on marketing calendars, editorial calendars, content marketing calendars, social media calendars—you get the picture. And I checked out a monster list of marketing calendar templates in a post on Crazy Egg’s blog.
There are tons of folks who have really good ideas of what to include in your calendar, and starting with a template to get your brainstorming underway is a solid way to begin.
So here’s how to plan a marketing calendar that really works—with a few tips from us at CoSchedule, and a lot more from the other rock stars out there.
Start With This Guide And Template, And Then…
You might just need a guide and a little something to write on while you read this post. I’ve got your back.
Download the free guide that will help you implement all of this advice with actionable, step-by-step information. You’ll also get a marketing calendar template Excel spreadsheet to help you work through your first few ideas.
And when you’re ready to use a tool designed to be your marketing calendar, get started with 14 free days of CoSchedule.
Now let’s get to the good stuff.
Step #1: Turn Your Marketing Strategy Into Real Content You’ll Create
Maybe writing a 30-page marketing strategy isn’t as important as planning real content. It sounds harsh, but hear me out:
For startups, business plans are no longer normal.
In fact, they’re now considered a faux pas and seen as a mere “business guess.” But that wasn’t always the case. Before the lean startup, the business plan was a document that assumed we knew everything there was to know about our business, a plan set in stone. It was done, or so we thought.
In reality, it was just a big huge guess.
Marketing plans and gigantic old strategy documents aren’t much different. They may sound novel and responsible, but the reality is that they are just guesses, too. What could content marketing strategy builders learn from the lean startup model?
The more time you spend strategizing, the less time you spend creating real content that will influence sales (which, let’s face it, is the entire reason to plan your marketing calendar).
Whether you have a marketing strategy already or not, there are just a few things you need in your strategy to help you validate what content to create:
- The now-infamous: Know your audience. This could start as simple as a customer survey, then possibly just bullet points you add into an Evernote note that help you stay in touch with your customers’ changing needs. The main point here is this: Keep it simple, especially at first.
- Create content. Content is data, and you get to know your customers by creating content and measuring its impact. There’s no way you will know everything about your audience until you put something out there, start communicating with them, and get their feedback.
- Start small. If you’re thinking about doing an hourlong video or an e-book first, think again. Could you release a chapter of an e-book first to gauge its performance before you spend more time developing content on that topic? Could the same go for your monster video? If content is data, plan minimum viable content on your marketing calendar first to feel out what will truly “move the needle.” (I had to sneak in a quip like that since we’re talking strategy!)
That really looks like this:
From here, turn your strategy into content. And use the data from what you create to plan more:
- Create your content.
- Share it with your audience.
- Measure what’s working.
- Learn what to create and where to share.
- Plan more content like your best-performing projects.
So now that you have a minimum viable marketing strategy to get started, the next step is looping in who’ll help you create that content. This will help you define expectations for everyone—even if it’s really only you as an all-in-one marketing team.
- Brainstorm every question your audience has about your niche from knowing nothing to being an expert.
- From there, strategize the best forms of content you’ll use to answer their questions. This will serve as the foundation for your marketing calendar.
I’d rather have a first-rate execution and second-rate strategy any time than a brilliant idea and mediocre management. —Jamie Dimon
Step #2: Understand Who’ll Do What
Ann Handley has an awesome idea when it comes to who should be involved in your editorial flow, and thus, have access to your marketing calendar to understand when pieces will publish:
These are roles not staff positions. Each role might be filled by one person or perhaps by a dozen, depending on the size and complexity of your own organization.
Let’s take a look at those roles quick:
- Team lead, or your strategist
- Editorial director
- Content creators
- Analytics expert
- Site manager
That’s a pretty good list. And while that list works for Ann, it might not for you. For a small team, you can narrow that list of roles down even further:
- Team lead who helps with planning, editing, publishing, and distributing
- Writer who turns a content idea into something your audience will love
- Designer (or videographer, podcaster, etc.) who takes the writer’s creation to the next level
Essentially, these folks are the ones who’ll help you plan, create, and share the content according to your marketing strategy. Get everyone on the same page now to make actually producing content a lot easier down the road.
- Narrow down the roles you need to create the different content types you explored in step #1.
- Brainstorm who’ll help you complete those projects (you’re looking for names here).
- Get everyone on the same page to understand about how much content you can publish in a normal week.
- Find a marketing calendar tool that helps with project management, communication, and workflow that everyone will use.
Now it’s time work that marketing calendar: Plan what topics you’ll cover.
Step #3: Define Your Topic Themes
John Jantsch over at Duct Tape Marketing plans out his marketing calendar based on themes. The themes help him look at a calendar that connects with topics he wants to cover for his audience.
Note that this isn’t actual content yet—it’s just a note of the topics he’d like to address in his content:
The first step is to start making a list of your most important themes. I generally try to find three core themes and about nine supplemental themes. (Nice tidy 12 monthly themes.) Your core themes are the kinds of things that might be found on your homepage or even in the title attribute of your home page. Or, perhaps the main navigational elements of your site.
While it scares me to plan 12 months ahead because the data from your current content should help you plan new content, this is an awesome way to plan strategically (and super efficiently) and keep your content on point.
John shares exactly how he chooses themes:
Start with brainstorming. Lock yourself away and start thinking about the kinds of things people ask about the most, where you make your most money, or where you see the greatest opportunities in your industry. This is often enough to create a good start to your list. Obviously, if you have a team, get them involved – they may actually know better than you. (Industry jargon that means nothing to the prospect must be left out here.)
John mentions this is a nice way to get past staring at a blank marketing calendar without any clue of what content to add to it. I also love that about themes.
- Find the main themes from your list of customer questions in step #1. Define their biggest challenges, the areas of opportunity in your industry, and how you make the most money.
- Choose themes to flesh out your marketing calendar. You may want to plan a month ahead, a quarter, or the entire year. It’s whatever works for you. Personally, I’d choose weekly themes to repeat over the course of months to have tangible data as evidence to plan more content around a theme or less. This way, you’d avoid planning lots of content around a theme for an entire month without knowing if that theme is a dud.
- Plan those themes on your marketing calendar for your entire team to see. Remember, themes aren’t content; themes direct the content your team will create.
Step #4: Prioritize Your Marketing Projects
Marcus Sheridan from The Sales Lion has a simple solution to help you plan your marketing calendar based on projects that will have the biggest impact on your business. He addresses prioritizing your marketing calendar very simply:
Remember, content marketing is about generating more sales. When all is said and done, that’s what matters.
He suggests prioritizing more “Buyer’s Content” instead of so much top of the funnel, inbound content.
By understanding this, the aim is to plan content on your marketing calendar that will help prospects make purchase decisions instead of purely focusing on content that’s great for the top of the funnel but just generating traffic.
The team at The Sales Lion even have a simple algorithm they use to prioritize their projects that you can use, too:
Essentially, we have every client rate their planned content (be it blog titles, videos, etc.) on a scale of 1-3. A “3” score means it’s “Buyer’s Content” and therefore marked as most urgent—moving it to the top of the calendar. If it’s a “1” grade, then we’ll wait to produce this content because it’s either a top of funnel question that a buyer may be asking or even an “outside of the funnel” question/subject—meaning that although it may be relevant to the business and buyer, it doesn’t necessarily represent someone who is seriously considering making a purchase right now.
From here, you can plan a balance of content focused on selling and content focused on inspiring interest in your business on your marketing calendar.
- For each theme, brainstorm content you could create for that topic. Don’t limit yourself at first: When you think of an idea, write it down quickly and move to the next.
- For those content ideas, use Marcus’ algorithm to rank them with good, better, best: 1 means inbound, 3 means looking to buy. Use your best judgement to rank these just to get started.
- Sift through the content ideas for every theme. Sort them according to 3, 2, 1 to prepare a prioritized list that you’ll add to your marketing calendar.
And when you start planning actual pieces of content on your calendar, there are a few things to keep in mind:
Step #5: Plan Your Content On Your Marketing Calendar
This is the fun part! And there are many ways to do this:
While editorial calendars work particularly well for managing blogs, you can use them to organize all of your marketing.
So I wanted to know how the other pros out there plan more than just blog and social media content, but a true all-in-one marketing calendar that you can also do with CoSchedule. Here’s what they had to say:
Plan Actual Pieces Of Content To Target Specific Keywords Your Audience Uses
You used Marcus’ algorithm to prioritize your projects, so let’s make those into actual pieces of content on your calendar. John Jantsch at Duct Tape Marketing had some more solid advice on planning projects as content:
Now take that list to the Google Keyword Planner and see if you can find themes that have significant volume. You must balance key terms with being too generic though. A term like “marketing” wouldn’t make sense as a theme, even for a marketing consultant, but a term like “referral marketing tactics” might.
To summarize: While all of your content may be connected to a theme, choose a keyword for every single piece of content you’ll publish. These may be keywords all related to the same topic, but unique enough to help you connect your different content to the terms your audience is searching for.
- Read this: How To Make An SEO Content Strategy That Will Improve Your #1–3 Results By 248%.
- Select a core keyword for every single piece of content (and related keywords) that will publish on the magical interwebs.
Then add the keywords into your projects on your marketing calendar according to the priority you defined through Marcus’ scoring exercise.
Plan Content For A Week, Month, Or Year Out
Joe Pulizzi from Content Marketing Institute has a lot of insight on the content marketing process, and marketing calendars are a huge element of successful strategies turning into real content:
One thing is certain: if you don’t keep an editorial/content calendar, the content doesn’t get done. —Joe Pulizzi
Joe breaks it down into such a simple idea:
An editorial calendar simply tracks what content you are going to cover, what tactic it’s for (blog, newsletter, etc.) and who’s responsible.
Best practice is to set up a master calendar for all your content initiatives, and then a separate content calendar for each initiative. Traditionally, we’ve set up editorial calendars 12 months out and then constantly change them as we tweak the marketing plan.
The good news is that your themes are the year calendar, and now you’re ready to plan real projects for each “initiative”, as Joe calls them.
So let’s recap everything you just learned, and use Joe’s advice to get your projects on your marketing calendar.
- At this point, you have a marketing calendar with themes outlining the topics you’ll cover every single month. Plan those themes on your marketing calendar for the entire year (and take seasonality into account, too, for big holidays or events in your industry).
- You got the entire team on board to understand their roles. Now it’s time to understand how much content you can actually produce in a given week or month. Sit down with the team to plan your publishing frequency, taking into consideration all of the marketing projects you’ll complete.
- You have a list of prioritized projects to complete. Now that you know how much you can complete, and the entire team is on board, plan an achievable amount of projects. It’s not worth stressing yourself out with an unrealistic amount of projects to complete.
Actually Create The Content
I couldn’t say this better than Rebecca Lieb from (who’s brilliant, by the way, and worth following) on combining your marketing calendar with a content production process:
Many editorial calendars also incorporate the production process into the mix, which is a great way to ensure content creation is on track. This can include who’s responsible for individual content elements, the due date of a first draft, who conducts the copyedit, and a date (often, with a specific time) for receiving and proofing the final draft, entering it into the CMS system (or newsletter template, or blog platform), and when it will be pushed live, or published.
Where Rebecca started, Jodi Harris from Content Marketing Institute provides a few more details to help you set up your marketing calendar:
- The date the piece of content will be published
- The topic or headline of the content piece
- The author of the content
- The owner of the content – i.e., who is in charge of making sure the content makes it from ideation to publication and promotion
- The current status of the content (updated as it moves through your publishing cycle)
Jodi continues with a few more items to include:
- The channels where your content will be published: This can include only your owned channels (such as your blog, Facebook Page, website, YouTube page, email newsletters, etc.), or you can expand your tracking to include paid and earned channels, as well.
- Content formats: Is it a blog post? A video? A podcast? An infographic? An original image? To get more mileage from the content you create, you might want to consider repurposing it into other formats at some point. So it’s handy to keep tabs on the types of assets you have on hand right from the start.
- Visuals: Speaking of assets, it’s important that you don’t overlook the appeal that visuals can lend to your content, both in terms of social sharing potential and overall brand recognition. Tracking the visual elements you include in your content efforts – such as cover images, logos, illustrations, charts – will make it easier to ensure that your work has a signature look and cohesive brand identity.
- Topic categories: This helps make your calendars more searchable when you are looking to see about which target topics you already created a lot of content – or which you haven’t covered often enough.
- Keywords and other meta-data, such as meta-descriptions and SEO titles (if they differ from your headlines), which will help you keep your SEO efforts aligned with your content creation.
- URLs: This info can be archived as an easy way to keep your online content audits updated, or to link to older pieces of content in the new content you create.
- Calls to action: This helps you ensure that every piece of content you create is aligning with your company’s marketing goals.
So it makes sense to simply include all of this advice right in your marketing calendar as you create it. Here’s how:
All the actionable advice in this post will work with any format your marketing calendar takes.
It’s just that CoSchedule is actually designed to be your all-in-one marketing calendar, and helps you do all of this way more efficiently. What would your marketing look like if you could manage all of this in one tool?
Are you ready to get started?
This post was originally published on June 17, 2015. It was most recently updated on Aug. 7, 2017.