There are a few universal truths about the Internet that impact each and every one of us on a daily basis:
✅ Something is either LEGENDARY or AWFUL. There is no middle ground.
✅ YouTube comments are an incestous breeding ground for psychopaths.
✅ Mansplaining business success on LinkedIn and inspirational quotes from fitness models or mom bloggers on Instagram is the best evidence we have that parallel universes do exist.
✅ Anyone that agrees with you is right and everyone that doesn’t, isn’t.
✅ Search engines are the largest single source of traffic to most websites.
✅ And social media is the largest referral source of traffic.
These last two, seemingly simple and obvious, actually have a much broader implication for content marketers everywhere. It means all of the “stuff” we do and create and produce has two primary goals:
- Outranking competitors across winner-take-all search engines, and
- Breaking through crowded, noisy social platforms where everyone walks, talks, and acts the same
Content strategies can help you figure out how you’re going to do those things. However, content planning is the secret ingredient to actually transforming those ideas into action.
Here’s why it’s so critical to content success, and how to properly do it to make sure you get the results you deserve.
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Table of Contents
What is content planning (and why it’s different from “content strategy”)?
“Content strategy” vs. “content planning” sounds like semantics.
Another mountain out of molehill designed to help douchey “influencers” add an extra zero onto their speaking fees. (Those who can’t, speak.)
‘Cept, this time is’t another one of those rare exceptions to the rule.
Content strategy and planning are related concepts. There’s some overlap. But there’s also a key difference, however slight, that makes a world of difference when it comes time to actually produce some stuff designed to bring in mountains of traffic that sticky icky green. 🔥 🚀💰
Ready to revisit your dreaded, ineffectively pointless SAT dayz?
If content strategy is the thinking, content planning is the doing.
One is on paper, the other is in practice. One determines the general direction you’re heading, while the other puts boots on the ground to actually get shit done.
Content planning is like the glue or the bridge or the (insert cheesy metaphor here) that connects your strategy with the actual content creation part.
Your strategy will often set the goal posts, the hash marks, the boundaries, and the rules of the game. You said you want “this much traffic” or “these conversions rates” by doing “this much” on your “target leading indicators.”
But content planning is about fielding a team of players, equipped with plays and calls, overseen by a single-minded, Belichick-like relentlessness of execution.
That last part is critical, because no matter how slight the difference between these two buzzwords, the planning process is what’s ultimately important to driving results.
Because, as Iron Mike pointed out, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
Strategies and plans are good. Can be helpful. Useful decision-making exercises.
But planning execution is the god-light-shining-down epiphany that separates the wheat from the chaff.
Here are some real-world examples to show you exactly how to do just that.
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What should be included in a content plan?
Writing articles like this can be tough.
It can be either easy or difficult, depending on how you do it.
The easy thing to do would just be to blow some flimsy tactical smoke up your ass and call it a day. Answer a question like “what should I put in my content plan?” with some faulty logic like “here’s a bunch of stuff you already know, with examples that only apply to massive companies you can’t replicate, with resources you don’t have, or one-off flukes that aren’t repeatable.”
I can already guarantee this article would be more Buzzsumo-worthy if we just rattled off “the top ten MarTech stack” and “X tactics from these Y influencers” in what follows. That’s exactly what you’re probably going to read on every other “content planning” article ranking below this one.
But we’re not going to do that.
Because it’s disingenuous.
And foolhardy to pin your success on any one tactic or channel or technique.
Banner ads may have worked like the bee’s knees way back in ‘94, pulling in 78% of visitors when Ace of Base’s steaming-pile of 💩 “The Sign” topped the charts. But the Law of Shitty Clickthroughs means any arbitrage you might have found with those back then has died an ugly, painful, death with sub 1% CTRs today in the cold light of day.
So instead of pinning your hopes and dreams on silver bullets that don’t exist, like stumbling across a pot of gold at the end of some rainbow, you need to focus on timeless principles that won’t change or lose effectiveness over time.
Principle #1. Inputs & outputs
What does Capitalism, Hollyweird, and the Catholic Church have in common?
Well, yes, technically the rapey stuff.
But the actual answer we were looking for is that each is focused exclusively on maximizing outputs while minimizing inputs. Selfishly hoarding excess cash above and beyond what’s required to actually sustain itself. And then plowing profits back into new projects to keep the gravy train rolling for the people at the top.
Harsh? Maybe. Not necessarily wrong, though, for profit-seeking enterprises looking for a pay day. (It’s only wrong when you claim your purpose is one thing and yet your actions repeatedly prove the opposite.)
Content isn’t any different. It’s an investment, with a payback period of ~6-12 months and a ROI in months ~12-24.
Inputs are things like keywords and topics to choose, money to be invested, content assets to create for website content or blog content or Instagram content or whatever, and your strategy for how to turn these things into more money a few months down the road. Whereas outputs become better rankings, increased traffic, higher lead gen, and mo’ money.
Principle #2. Leverage
The next step is to David Copperfield your inputs into more and more and more outputs over time. You do that with leverage; to WallStreetBets your way into compounding growth.
Social media is a perfect example. Your primary on-site content assets (articles, guides, whitepapers, whatever) should be Freddie Krugered into more outputs like a custom illustration for paid Facebook ads, graphs and charts for some sweet editorial links, and video for YouTube, blended searches, and social groups.
One awesome content piece = multiple assets to repurpose across several channels at the same time, resulting in exponential traffic (output), all while limiting the number of content pieces you actually need to create (input).
Another common area to exploit is the number of content pieces required to rank for multiple keywords.
Some times, in some spaces, one keyword requires one unique content piece. There’s a 1:1 ratio. But in others, it’s 1:4 – where one good piece of content can rank for multiple related keywords at the same time. Like so:
In other words:
- Instead of spending $300/per article for 4 unique pieces of content ($1,200 total)
- You spend $1,000/article (so, a lot, but still $200 less net) on one awesome content piece that outranks all those mediocre ones
Principle #3. Projects
Sadly, most spaces today are too difficult and competitive. (Peep this free course to find out why, and what to do about it.)
So yes, working smart and not hard can help you figure out clever ways to apply leverage (principle #2) to always minimize inputs while maximizing outputs (principle #1).
There are lots of ways to increase the mileage you receive out of each and every blog post.
BUT, any large goals — seven, eight, nine, and ten-figure revenues — requires both quantity and quality.
So you need to replicate that same leverage across hundreds of post ideas, now, too.
And that’s why your inputs need to be grouped or organized into individual projects that might run concurrently.
That means instead of planning four blog posts at a time (for a single week or month), you should be planning four dozen blog posts across the next quarter in your content calendar.
Just sitting down to do the keyword research for this is the easy part. Figuring out how you’re going to get all of the parallel content production processes running at the same time is the difficult part.
Organizing keywords in related batches helps with building hub pages or silos, create better internal links, and more.
But more importantly, it helps you create better content teams and processes that are actually going to outproduce the competition.
Principle #4. Resource allocation
Calling human beings “assets” or “resources” is ugly.
But it’s also a useful simplification in this context.
System and processes might reign supreme in content production. But it’s still the humans — not (yet) machines — that produce the widgets at the end of the day.
Your problem here is that you keep thinking in 2D, when in reality, we’re about to get 3-dimensional.
You have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But when you have a toolbox, you just use whatever tool that’s required for each problem in front of you.
Different keywords and topics and content types in your different batches or projects should use different types of writers for different reasons.
Expensive, subject-matter experts are required in certain cases. Cheap writers are actually preferable in others. While pretty-good-but-not-great writers can be “just right,” too.
Don’t just use one vs. the other, but all at the same time.
The answer to which resources at which times comes down to unique factors you’re facing, like:
- Keyword volume and competition (or if you think about it another way, potential opportunity)
- The competition’s content and how detailed, interesting, insightful, or basic it might be
- How technical (or not) the subject matter is in each piece of content
- The intangible style, tone, positioning, or product-knowledge needed to discuss certain topics in certain ways
- And on and on
It’s only when you define all these variables that you can accurately determine who’s better for which job. How you proactively error-proof content problems before they occur, by having in-house talent that’s better positioned to write detailed product guides or opinion-pieces where your unique point of view is required, for example. All while outsourcing the most scalable, fact-based content ASAP.
There are rules of thumbs to keep in mind. But there’s otherwise no “right” or “wrong” answer that always applies in each case.
Principle #5. Prioritization
[Head Keyword A] has a volume of 100,000+, but a keyword difficulty of 89.
[Long-Tail Keyword B] has a volume of only 1,000, yet a keyword difficulty of just 9.
So. Which one do you go after?
Of course, it depends:
- How big is your brand?
- How popular is your site relative to the ones already ranking?
- How topically authoritative is your site around that subject?
- How much money can you spend on a content asset for that topic?
- How many links can you consistently produce?
- How much time can you wait until that keyword climbs the charts?
- How relevant is each keyword to your target audience?
Once again, this is why silver bullets and “unicorns” and “skyscrapers” and all the other marketing bullshit out there often falls short. They all lack context. YOUR context.
So you try to crowbar your way into a bank vault, instead of Oceans 11ing your way out.
The most probable answer to the example above is that you should usually stair-step your way up. Unless you’re in the Internet’s top 1% (or have the budget of one), it’s probably smarter and faster and easier and cheaper to rank #1 for the [Long-Tail Keyword B] rather than fight the Colosseum-like bloodbath that is awaiting you in [Head Keyword A].
SERPs are winner-take-all, where positions 1-5 get all the traffic. And position 5+ might as well be Page 5+.
That means if you’re a virtual nobody with no Google street cred and no links, relative to your biggest competitors…
… you should adjust your approach ASAP, downgrade or substituting keywords/topics/content to a less competitive space where you can actually compete…
And then come back to fight another day, going after the big stuff when you do have the resources, timeline, and stomach to wage an all-out attack.
Steal this content planning roadmap example to fail-proof your future results
That was a lot of rambling. Probably too much.
But it was also the mission-critical stuff – getting your decision making right before you worry about actually getting into the nitty gritty of a content planning roadmap.
Now, let’s switch gears, pick up the pace, and put the pedal to the metal.
What should specifically be inside your content plan, based on the principles in the last section?
- Project list for priority and timeline
- Projects or batches
- Keywords or topics
- Opportunity data (volumes, keyword difficulty, links needed, etc)
- Content templates, benchmark examples
- Resources to allocate (writer type, costs, etc.)
Let’s dig into the details on all of those aspects so you can see how your content marketing plan should look.
Fire up your content planning tool arsenal
Content plans are like editorial calendars on steroids, so they should live inside some project management app where your entire team has access to collaborate.
The best app is the one you (and your team) actually uses. So it literally doesn’t matter.
Google Docs should almost always be your go-to editor to collaborate across content. While a good video or screen capture tool, like Loom, is also indispensable for communicating across remote environments
Otherwise, you’ll also need [insert favorite keyword research tool here]. We use Ahrefs, but other major ones like Moz are fine, too. Yes, their respective datasets are extremely important for accuracy. But keyword research is also more about broader trends, not splitting hairs like Tool A says volume is 90 and Tool B says volume is 110.
The point is that you’ll need to overlay traditional SEO and keyword research data with more content-oriented qualities like topical authority, semantic keywords, and competitive gaps.
A content planning template starts with your content projects, priorities, and timeline
Let’s use a simple shared Google Sheet for the rest of this example.
Here, the first tab should include your master project list broken down into (a) current status, (b) sites/brands/content areas, and (c) batch of related keywords:
I usually like to name each content batch with whatever ties them all together. For instance, that’s usually the content template (“VS”) or keywords (like “WordPress”). And then I’ll also add qualifiers for volume ranges, keyword difficulty (KD 10-35), or whatever other filters we’re using to separate hundreds of keywords into our bite-sized chunk of a dozen or so at a time that we’re going to attack.
Then, I’ll lay out the individual content batches as independent tabs so they’re easier to build upon in a few minutes. I’ll also color code them so I can see (and communicate with our team) if they’re ready to assign out and put into production, or if they still have a few holes that require digging or filling.
Last but not least, I’ll also have a separate “Research Log” tab running as we’re building out this research to compile ideas, mark new areas to research, or provide internal notes to keep track of what’s been decided or still needs review.
Flesh out your content planning template into individual projects with opportunity, scopes, and examples
Once you’ve identified keyword or topic areas of interest (which is arguably half the battle), the next step is to start organizing them into a new batch or project.
Here’s typically how mine look, and what’s included in each section:
- Monthly batch: When is this content going to be produced? Thinking of a month as an individual sprint makes the most sense, as it usually requires a few weeks to go from content brief to outline, draft, editing revisions, format/upload/optimize (Yo! 👋), and publish.
- Keywords: List your thematically-related keywords or topics, or use some content type/template to organize them into a single project batch that makes sense.
- Type: What kind of content is this going to be, or, what should it look like?
- Word count: Estimated length or scope that ultimately gets tied back to cost (to produce).
- Content brief: Ahhh, a topic for another day. All the good stuff that determines how each content piece should look and how your team should put it together.
- Video URL: A video overview walkthrough and explanation of how you want the content to come across, be structured, convey information, etc.
- Benchmark: Any finished versions or good examples the writers can benchmark.
- Semantic keywords: Related topics and subtopics the writer needs to include or touch on in each piece.
- Writer type: What kind of writer(s) do you need for these pieces, and why?
- Cost per word: Effective rate for that writer type you’re specifying.
- Cost per piece: Cost per piece, so you can total up and budget the cost per project batch.
Continue adding individual processes to link your social media calendar
The information you’re including here has one goal: transforming content strategy into content creation.
So include or ignore whatever you’d like. You just need to make sure that (a) strategists know what targets they need to hit, (b) managers know which budget ranges to fall between, and (c) writers know what they need to write.
You can (and often should) also add content planning columns for social media, too. Here, you’re linking up your production or creation teams with the people who will be responsible for promoting it.
For example, if you know you’re going to create proprietary data, the promotion team should also get data visualization or custom assets created at the same time.
The reason for including social media into your content planning is because the designers will often at least a week’s lead time, before your marketers or social account managers can create the copy to promote it.
In nerdy project management-speak, that creates:
- Parallel processes: where designers need to start working on assets as soon as an outline is approved and the writer is still writing, OR
- Dependencies: where your promoters can’t promote until designers design and writers finish writing
Obviously, all of this needs to be spelled out during your content planning to make sure the people responsible for overseeing all of this stuff — operations and project managers who’re good at it, NOT “editors” or god forbid, other writers — have everything they need at a glance.
That’s even more true when you throw more balls into the mix, forcing your Ops peeps to juggle additional content assets like a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performer (RIP, you beautiful animal slaughtering bastards).
For instance, you take the content and design, then add video and, oooooooh, let’s also include additional video editing to get screen overlay examples:
AND, we’ll need to also flesh out multiple versions of social copy, some short some long, for all the various promotional channels, too:
Jumping back into your project management app, here’s how we would organize all of this information in Pipefy, with the content description and overall information, along with the individual steps to take once it’s time to upload/format/publish or start promoting via social or link building.
Again, the individual tools are less important.
What IS important, though, is that your content planning process thinks through and spells out all of these little interactions so that everyone on your end is rowing in the same direction.
Traffic is an output. An end product. A lagging indicator that only shows up weeks or months after a lot of other stuff you’ve done.
It’s the end, not the beginning, of a long, draw-out process.
So the success or failure of driving traffic, leads, and sales doesn’t come down to a single tactic or Achilles Heel that threw your entire content marketing strategy off track.
THIS is the real reason your efforts fall short. Why bottlenecks appear. And why execution often fails.
NOT because you’re lacking ideas. You probably already know or want all of these things to happen already. Hell, your content strategy probably already spells them all out.
BUT, they’re still not happening. Not in reality, or not consistently enough across every single content piece you publish.
Because your content planning wasn’t thorough enough, clear enough, or proactive enough.
And, even more likely, is a combination of all these things.