The Best Way to Develop Effective Editorial Guidelines

Creating great content consistently isn’t easy.

That’s especially true when you’re always juggling multiple projects.

Time gets tight. You start cutting corners. Performance declines accordingly.

It’s a downward slope. Stay on it long enough, and you might find content marketing axed from your company’s budget.

Yikes.

So, what’s the solution? How do you make sure every piece you publish is like your best? And how do you enforce quality across a team of in-house and guest writers?

Start by developing strong editorial guidelines.

You might call them something else. Our friends at Help Scout call them “editorial values.” Here at CoSchedule, we call them our standards of performance.

Whatever word you use, the goal is the same: document standards every piece you publish has to follow.

That’ll help make sure you never cut corners again. Read on and let’s make missed steps in your content creation process a thing of the past.

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What Are Standards of Performance?

Standards of performance are concrete guidelines every piece of content you publish is required to meet. They make sure nothing goes out the door without hitting every point on a detailed checklist. When applied consistently, they make sure you never publish anything subpar.

Why Are Standards of Performance Important?

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

That’s a quote from writer and historian Will Durant. You’ve probably heard some variation of this same idea somewhere before. The takeaway is that people will know you for what you do on a regular basis.

As a marketer, that means if you consistently publish quality content, that’s what your audience will come to expect from you. If your stuff is hit or miss (or, worse, consistently poor), they’ll either ignore you or think your brand sucks.

If stats from a recent Conductor webinar are accurate, though, most content creators aren’t holding themselves to a high enough standard.

Consider this quote:

“… only 0.1% of all content gets more than a thousand shares, and the conversion rate is well under 1%.”

That … isn’t great. But, there is an upside.

Since the bar is set low, clearing it shouldn’t be difficult. Do the work your competition won’t and you’ll succeed. And your standards of performance are what will guide you to that success.

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How We Developed Standards of Performance at CoSchedule

Back when CoSchedule first started, our marketing team was just one person (Nathan Ellering, who is now our Director of Demand Generation).

When you’re a team of one, it’s easy to know what you think content should look like. You try different things, see what works, and do more of what proves to be effective.

Then, our team started to grow.

Now, we have multiple team members crafting content. Even if creating content isn’t their first focus, a lot of our team members create some kind of content, at least every once in a while.

Naturally, managing expectations and maintaining content consistency got harder once more team members got involved. When you add guest authors into the mix, it only gets more complicated.

Instead of allowing writers to run wild, we decided it was time to establish quality standards. These would be simple data-driven guidelines that would help us make sure every piece we produce lives up to the same standards as our very best content.

We called them our Standards of Performance, and they’ve been our guiding light ever since.

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First Standard of Performance: Comprehensiveness

Our aim is to publish the most complete content we possibly can.

Ideally, our readers shouldn’t have to read another post on a given topic. If we’ve done our job correctly, you’ll be able to find all the information you need to get a job done or learn a new skill in one place.

That often means our content runs long. There’s a reason for that, though. If you want to go more than just puddle-deep into a topic, you’re going to provide something substantive.

When we reviewed our top performing content, we discovered our best performing content adhered to this principle. Stuff that went short or cut corners underperformed, while posts that dug deep into research and provided all the actionable steps the reader needed to solve a problem excelled.

How Do We Implement This?

We’re big fans of the Skyscraper Technique.

You’ve probably heard about it before. If not, it’s a simple process coined by Brian Dean that entails. Here’s how to implement it in two steps:

  • Read the top ten pieces of content on Google for a given topic.
  • Create one piece of content that’s better and more resourceful than what’s already out there.

How the Skyscraper Technique Works

Simple enough, right?

Well, from a research perspective, it is.

Actually executing that kind of content is (perhaps obviously) substantially more difficult.

One way to make this process easier is to start with a simple spreadsheet. Add columns for the following things:

  • Primary keyword. What is the primary keyword being targeted? Check the URL and headline for clues.
  • Secondary keywords (as best as you can tell).
  • Title tag. This appears as the blue highlighted text in search results.
  • Meta description. This appears as the short (160 character or less) description underneath the title tag in search results.
  • Length. How long is this content?
  • # of Images. Are images present, and if so, how many?
  • Is video present? Does the page include a video? If so, is it an original video, or one from another site?
  • Downloadable assets. Are there any bonus materials included that people can download (PDFs, templates, ebooks, etc.)?
  • H2 and H3 subheadings. Is the page properly formatted with H2 and H3 subheadings, and which keywords (if any) are present?
  • Missing details? Is there any important information about this topic that the page is missing?

Documenting your findings along the way can make it easier to keep track of what your content needs to compete. Here’s what your spreadsheet might look like (plus a free copy via Google Sheets you can use here):

Second Standard of Performance: (Smart and Strategic) Keyword Targeting

We also noticed every post we published targeted a clear keyword.

Not only that, but they also incorporated strategic secondary (or LSI) keywords. Those additional long-tail terms tie into comprehensiveness by covering all the most important details about a topic (and proving it both to search engines and real human readers).

So, we decided we’d never publish a post without a strong keyword (with rare exceptions).

We’ve experimented with that route before. The results have always been underwhelming.

How Do We Implement This?

Content planning (at least for the CoSchedule Blog) always starts with a heavy amount of keyword research.

We’re not just looking for any keywords, though. They have to meet the following criteria:

  • Relevancy. Are these topics or problems that professional marketers are researching?
  • Volume. We consider relevancy most important, but we also want to target terms that a sizeable portion of our audience will care about.
  • Theme. Does the keyword relate to a task that an existing or upcoming CoSchedule feature helps people complete?

Before we start searching for specific keywords, though, content ideas might come from any of the following sources:

  • Conversations with our sales team. What do customers (and prospective customers) say their top challenges are?
  • Social media chatter. What are topics people seem interested in on social media?
  • Feature launches. What content could we create to help people get more value from recently added features to CoSchedule?
  • Personal skill development. What’s something we’ve recently learned how to do that we can share with our audience?
  • Rants. What are things about the industry that frustrate us? Are there ways we think marketers could get certain things done more easily (than the way they’re typically told)?
  • Seasonal topics. Are there certain things that are most relevant at a certain time of year?
  • Brainstorming sessions. Every once in a while, we’ll conduct a team-wide brainstorming session. This process usually nets a month’s worth of ideas in under an hour. This video breaks down how it works:

 

Once we have some idea of what content we need, we’ll fire up our keyword research tools. A few of our favorites include:

  • Ahrefs Keyword Explorer: Part of their growing feature suite, this powerful keyword research tool is by far our favorite. It provides an awesome amount of data to help us determine the best keywords to include.
  • Google Adwords Keyword Planner: They say the classics never go out of style. This tool is free and ubiquitous with keyword research.
  • Ubersuggest: This tool is great for spinning off tons of ideas based on one keyword. Feed it a topic and it’ll return a spate of long-tail variations based on Google autocomplete suggestions. (Tip: try exporting that list and pasting it into the Keyword Planner).

These are far from the only options out there. However, they’re the options we use the most.

Once we’ve narrowed down ideas we want to run with, we add them onto our internal CoSchedule calendar:

If we have ideas we might want to create in the future, we’ll drag them into our Drafts folder (click an item on the calendar and drag it all the way to the right):

Third Standard of Performance: Make Every Piece Actionable

Lots of content tells you what to do. Not enough shows you how to do it.

This is a major source frustration for us (and the inspiration behind a lot of internal rants).

So, we do our best to practice what we preach and make every piece we publish actionable.

What does “actionable” mean, though? And what does “actionable content” really look like?

Those are common questions we get asked. For us, actionable content shows you how to get stuff done. If it tells you to do something, it either goes through the process step-by-step, or includes a video or link to another resource that does.

How Do We Implement This?

We make sure our content is actionable by always including step-by-step breakdowns with whatever visual aids a reader needs to understand what to do.

To make your own content more actionable:

  • List the steps required to complete a task. And if you’re going to ask someone to do something in your content, show them exactly how to do it.
  • Add in screenshots or photos. If it’s possible, give readers some visual guidance. Infographics, charts, and graphs can also be helpful.
  • Consider adding video. If you can show how to do something more easily with video, go for it. Sometimes, a minute-long clip is easier to get the point across than 1,000 words and 25 screenshots.

Whatever you do, include actionable follow-through in your content. Depending on your industry or niche, this will almost certainly put you ahead of 90% of your competitors.

Taking the time to do this right will take time. However, one single actionable piece of content is probably more valuable to your readers (and therefore, your business) than ten pieces that only scratch the surface of any given topic.

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Fourth Standard of Performance: Relevancy

The best content on a topic your customers don’t care about is useless.

You’ve got to make sure what you’re publishing is going to bring in not just a large audience, but the right audience.

That’s why we pay close attention to topical relevance when selecting what to write about. The marketing world is big, and there’s a lot of stuff we could cover. However, if we’re going to get the most from our limited resources, we want to make sure we spend the majority of our time writing about the things our audience cares about most.

How Do We Implement This?

Anytime we publish a piece of content, we ask:

  • Would our target audience care about this? If not, it’s time to scrap that idea and move onto the next one. No time to waste.
  • Does this topic tie into our product’s purpose? If not, is it really something our audience would expect us to publish?
  • Is this something we can speak authoritatively on? If not, why would anyone listen to us?

A more concrete means of determining relevance is to check who else is covering that topic. If sites or companies we consider peers, friends, or competitors are covering it, then that’s a strong indicator it’s relevant. Of course, we take things on a case by case basis though, using our best judgment.

How to Establish Your Own Standards of Performance

This is what works for us.

However, every company (and marketing team) is different.

Your standards of performance should reflect what’s unique about your company, philosophy, and approach.

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Here’s How to Get Started

Don’t know where to begin? Here are some starting points to consider:

  • Identify what your competition’s current content doesn’t do. Then, commit to doing what they won’t with every piece you publish.
  • Know what makes you unique. There’s no point in publishing more content that looks and sounds exactly like your competitors. Figure out what separates you, and incorporate that into your editorial values.

What Comes Next: Putting Your Principles Into Practice

We have tons of resources on our blog that can help you execute 10X content that will build your business:

Best of luck creating and implementing your own editorial guidelines. May they keep your brand consistent (and your content manager happy).

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