4-Part Guide To Crafting a Winning Content Plan

You receive or finalize your organization’s latest content marketing strategy. That means you’re ready to jump right into creating great content, right?

Not so fast, friend. Sorry to tell you, but that strategy is a virtually useless piece of (digital) paper unless you have a content plan, too.

Why? Because knowing your goals isn’t the same as knowing how to achieve them.

A detailed content plan gives you the keys to unlock that knowledge. It outlines all the operational, technical, and tactical details that will guide and support your content efforts.

One-size-fits-all content plan templates don’t exist — every brand has a unique set of goals, assets, and considerations to account for. But here’s the next best thing: a detailed tutorial with expert-recommended resources to make crafting a winning content plan easier.

At the end of this article, you’ll also find a handy checklist to refer to as you build your plan. But before you roll up your sleeves and get to work, let’s answer a few fundamental questions:

What is a content plan?

A content plan documents all the specific policies, practices, resources, and task-related decisions required to execute your content strategy. It serves as a guide for orchestrating your content resources and systems.

It also governs your techniques and collaborative workflows and establishes parameters around your story creation and production processes. A content plan helps ensure your team has the right tools and resources to produce marketing content efficiently and deliver a valuable, high-quality experience to your audience.

Is a content plan the same thing as a content strategy?

Though these fundamental content marketing elements are closely intertwined, they’re not interchangeable. To understand the difference, think of how you might create a mood board for a personal goal.

Your content strategy sits at the top of your board, representing what success looks like to you. It sets the stage by documenting the goals you want to achieve, who else might be involved in (or benefit from) your achievement, and what will make it a distinctly satisfying experience. It also establishes an overarching theme around the unique ideas and insights that characterize your vision.

Your content plan, on the other hand, outlines all the specific steps you’ll take as you activate your vision. It’s where you characterize what needs to happen (and how) and what the resulting efforts should look like.

How do I develop a content plan?

Building your content plan can seem intimidating. You’ll need to orchestrate many parts, and each must align with your marketing goals and team dynamics.

Fortunately, if you break down your content plan into four focal areas, all the tasks should come into sharper focus, making the process much more manageable.

Here’s the good news: If your team has worked out its content operations framework, the first three are done already.

The four areas are:

  1. Governance and guidelines —the editorial quality standards, preferred practices, and guiding principles that define and distinguish the value of your brand’s content
  2. Processes and systems —your production tasks, workflows, routing practices, and the techniques and technologies you’ll use to make communication and collaboration as friction-free as possible
  3. Team resources — the roles that need to be in place, skills those tasks require, and details on how you’ll fill gaps that might emerge
  4. Content creation and delivery — the topics your creative team will focus on, how they’ll generate and prioritize ideas for those topics, and what content types, formats, and platforms you’ll leverage.

But don’t forget: The conditions you operate under today won’t stay the same forever. So, your plan should also account for how you’ll adapt to shifting business priorities, emerging tech trends, audience preferences, and other changes over time.

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Take a shortcut: Save some time when building your plan by starting with one of these five strategic content planning frameworks.

1. Set your guidelines and governance policies

Governance lies at the heart of every editorial program. The decisions you make – and the guidelines you set – will define and distinguish your brand’s content experience. It also solidifies the ways your audience should benefit from engaging with it.

At a minimum, you should start by documenting your standards, practices, and principles in two key areas:

  • How your brand will communicate with your audience
  • How your content will help your audience.

Define your content’s signature tone, voice, and style

Outline the qualities and characteristics that make your brand’s content recognizable and distinct from everyone else’s. Clearly define details like the preferred tone, brand voice, and style standards (for both text and visuals). These guidelines help ensure consistency across all your content channels and platforms.  

Hot tip: Checkr’s Sasha Laferte Cuneo outlines how to write a style guide for your brand. This process will help you build one quickly if you don’t already have one.

Establish editorial quality and value standards

Your editorial content team should be the keeper of the standards that make your content worthy of your audience’s attention. Poor or inconsistent quality can hinder content performance and poorly reflect your brand’s value and reputation.

If you need help deciding what standards to include in your content plan, refer to Ahava Liebtag’s Must-Have Checklist for Creating Valuable Content. It outlines five essential benchmarks to consider as you work to produce a high-quality content experience:

  • Findability
  • Readability
  • Understandability
  • Actionability
  • Shareability

The checklist also suggests attributes and elements that should factor into your creative process so your stories will earn high marks in all five areas.

2. Build your operational infrastructure and processes

In addition to establishing criteria for your output, your content plan should also cover your team’s input — how all the work gets done. That includes:

  • Defining the tasks to complete, processes for completing them efficiently, and how the work will flow through all content creation, production, and deployment stages
  • Determining how team members will collaborate efficiently and communicate effectively
  • Implementing mechanisms that will enable team members to stay focused and produce quality work
  • Identifying and coordinating the tools and technologies they’ll use in their work.

Define the workflow and build critical processes

If you don’t define the steps, signoffs, and stakeholders involved in transforming ideas into assets, you risk experiencing avoidable breakdowns and bottlenecks. Tasks can slip through the cracks, necessary approvals may get overlooked, and even minor errors and setbacks can quickly snowball into productivity nightmares.

Having a clear workflow and efficient processes takes the guesswork out of content marketing, making everyone’s jobs easier to manage. It also helps each contributor understand how their efforts fit the big picture of content success.

Start by understanding the difference between a workflow and a process:

  • A workflow is a set of tasks for producing a content asset, organized sequentially.
  • A process defines how your team will execute tasks in their workflow so the work gets done efficiently and with as little friction or disruption as possible.

Ready to start building? Follow these 5 Steps To Build a Content Operations Workflow That Helps Everybody. If your existing workflows or processes aren’t working as well as they used to, consider trying one of these 3 Agile Fixes To Keep Your Marketing Operations Humming.  

You can also consider planning your content in short-term, iterative stages. Following an agile planning approach gives your team the direction they need today while avoiding the need to rebuild your plan when new opportunities or transformational changes emerge. It minimizes the risk of creating content that no longer suits your audiences’ needs or your brand’s priorities.  

Promote smooth collaboration and communication

Once you’ve defined the workflow, help your team members understand their role in content creation – and how it impacts and overlaps with the responsibilities of everyone else involved in your content program.

That clarity helps when new business goals, industry conditions, or audience trends emerge and the demand for content increases. The added strain can quickly overwhelm your team’s communication ability, leading to confusion, collaborative friction, and missed deadlines.  

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One way to combat the overload is to empower your team members to take better control over their tasks. In How To Tame Content Tasks With These 5 ‘Cheat Codes,’ you’ll find a handy process for setting practical priorities to keep important work from falling through the cracks.

The best defense against these disruptions is a good offense. A detailed editorial calendar provides clarity so all team members can see where assets are in the production process, what tasks still need to be done, and with whom they should work to move it through to completion.

Determine how projects will be managed and prioritized

Working from a shared content calendar makes it easier to identify gaps in your content — which presents opportunities to create fresh conversations to engage your audience. These insights are critical for planning the topics and story ideas that give your content the best chance for success.

Another way to keep your team focused and productive is to implement a prioritization plan with a transparent content-scoring process. A scorecard establishes clear qualitative and quantitative criteria for gauging and ranking the importance of their many assignments.

It also provides the rationale for rejecting projects or ideas that might overtax their capabilities, delay them from handling more critical tasks, or fall outside your content’s primary purpose.

Keep in mind that not all content work will be directly marketing-related. Sales, PR teams, and other business units often rely on content teams to provide assets that support their functions. Establishing clear request management policies will help these organizational partners understand how and when (or if) your team will accommodate their requests.

Developing a detailed content request form may also be helpful. Asking for specific information and deliverable details will help set clear expectations around how your team will review, evaluate, prioritize, and approve (or reject) all the requests they receive.

At a minimum, your form should include questions about the project’s target audience, goals, key messages, and deadlines. You’ll find additional recommendations — and a request form template — in this article: 9 Questions To Help You Prioritize Content Creation.

Build-in quality assurance

While content teams can be flexible in managing projects and requests, they should be rigid about maintaining the highest standards of content quality. Even a minor factual error in your content can erode your brand’s credibility and reduce its audience value.

A sound quality assurance (QA) process will help keep typos, grammatical mistakes, and factual inaccuracies out of your published content and your brand’s reputation above reproach. Follow the tips in this accurate content checklist to start building that process.

Select and implement effective technologies

Beyond essential content marketing tools like calendars, customer journey maps, and task lists, ensure you have the right technology to support effective teamwork.

Depending on your operational conditions, critical technologies can range from simple spreadsheets and desktop-publishing programs to full-scale content management systems (CMS), marketing automation tools, digital asset management (DAM) platforms, and more.

Of course, AI-powered tools have become a top consideration in all marketing technology conversations. Not sure where — or how — to plug AI into your team’s efforts? Follow the advice of industry experts who have successfully worked AI into their content marketing plans.

AI — like any marketing technology — works best when it’s implemented as an additive resource, not a replacement for the skill and creativity of your human workforce. Learn how to strike the right balance with these tips on combining AI and human input. Then, explore ways AI can benefit your marketing beyond using it to create content.

3. Orchestrate your team roles and capabilities

It’s essential to account for all crucial roles, the skills required to fill them, and the support that enables everybody to perform to their potential. Without the right human resources, your plan will likely fall apart.

Determine essential roles

Your content marketing program’s potential for success lies squarely in the hands of your team members, so good planning involves putting the right staff members, functional roles, and overarching team structure in place.

Here’s a helpful guide to get you started: 7 Core Roles of a Content Marketing Team.

Evaluate existing skill sets and how to fill gaps

As new formats, platforms, and channels emerge, the demand for great content will only increase — in volume and variety. Knowing how to build and empower your team to meet those demands is critical to successful planning.

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Evaluate the team resources and skills you have at your disposal. Start by ensuring your team has competency in the 23+ Content Marketing Skills You Need for Today and the Next Five Years. If skill gaps exist, explore potential ways to fill them.

Your content budget may be a deciding factor here: According to Gartner research, 71% of CMOs believe they lack the budget to execute their strategy fully, which includes talent and skill-related costs.

If that’s the case, take a priority-based approach: Determine which skill sets you might need to acquire immediately and which ones you can outsource, augment with AI tools, or do without until your need grows.

Alternatively, consider providing the training and education that enables your existing team members to expand their skills and capabilities. Plan how you can support their career development with these tips on being a better content leader.

4. Make creative and delivery decisions

After you’ve outlined how your team should work, you’ll need to determine what creative output will result from their efforts. Planning these details will help keep everyone focused on developing the uniquely valuable conversations your audience wants to engage with.

Identify critical topics

Your brand may have expertise to share in many areas. But it’s best to focus on a few narrowly defined topics for planning purposes. Consider niche areas of your business that your competitors aren’t discussing or emerging issues on which your audience might struggle to find the trustworthy advice they need.  

To pinpoint what those topics might be, consider creating a content council. This group of subject matter experts, thought leaders, and other content partners (such as your sales team or product managers) can provide valuable audience insights you might not have access to. They can serve as a sounding board for the topics you’re considering or suggest additional topics that have come up in their customer conversations.

Generate ideas to develop into assets

To distinguish your brand’s content from your competition’s, you’ll need to develop unique ideas and novel ways to approach the topics you’ve chosen to cover.

Creative brainstorming techniques can help with this. Yet, these free-thinking exercises may not allow diverse perspectives to flow into your team’s creative process. Here’s another concern: The resulting ideas may not be well-aligned with your editorial mission or easy to execute.

That’s why a strategic content planning process matters, says CMI chief strategy officer Robert Rose. “Strategic planning … involves managers at the appropriate levels of the hierarchy meeting to agree on detailed and prioritized plans of action for a coming time frame.”

The first in his five-step formula for strategic planning is coming up with (and agreeing on the big ideas) you’ll want your content to cover.

Determine optimal story packaging and distribution options

Once you’ve agreed on the big stories to tell, you can focus on all the options for telling them. You can approach these decisions from many angles. Robert suggests two useful models to explore:

  1. The Hollywood showrunner approach, in which content teams plan out different “chapters” for how your big story idea will play out over time
  2. An architected story package approach, which helps you turn big stories into reusable modules that cover the whole audience journey

Content mapping can help you decide on content types and distribution formats to achieve your marketing goals. Follow the technique Carlijn Postma shares in 5 Steps to Mind Map Your Content and Increase Its Reach to visually organize information about the assets you’ve developed and determine which options offer the strongest potential to create trustworthy customer connections.  

What’s in your plan for content success?

Content success doesn’t just happen out of thin air. You need to know what conditions, decisions, and actions are involved and how to orchestrate them properly. With a detailed content plan, you’ll have all the pieces to realize your vision of success.

Content Planning Checklist

Focal areas for your plan Actions to take Tips to get started
Establish content guidelines and governance   Define the unique value your content will deliver   Outline the qualities and characteristics that will make your content recognizable and distinct, including your brand’s signature voice and style.
  Establish editorial quality and value standards  Outline the details of how your content will deliver against the five most critical benchmarks for audience value: Findability,
readability, understandability,
actionability, and shareability.
Build your systems, processes, and support mechanisms   Define the workflow and build critical processes       Build your workflow by identifying the tasks required to produce a content asset. Then, set those tasks sequentially and build agile processes that adapt to maintain optimal efficiency.
  Promote smooth collaboration and communication      Create a detailed editorial calendar so all team members can see where assets are in the production process, what tasks still need to be done, and how to move them to completion.
  Determine how projects will be managed and prioritized   Build a prioritization plan on transparent criteria for how your team should gauge and rank current projects and how they’ll handle incoming requests.
  Build in quality assurance Follow quality assurance best practices to keep typos, grammatical mistakes, and factual inaccuracies out of your published content and your brand’s reputation above reproach.
  Select and implement appropriate technologies  Ensure you have the tools to manage your content ecosystem and maintain optimal productivity. Consider where and how (or if) you’ll benefit from working AI tools into your operations.
Structure your team and skill sets Determine essential roles     Aim to cover the most critical content roles and consider whether your best option is to add resources or expand/ rebalance responsibilities to fill any gaps.
  Evaluate team skill sets and how to fill gaps  Ensure your team has competency in the most critical content marketing skills, and explore available resources for outsourcing, augmenting, or upskilling in the areas you may be missing.
Make creative and delivery decisions    
  Identify critical topics Develop a content council to surface areas where your content may offer the most value. Consider implementing a content scoring process to gauge the performance potential of your proposed topics.
  Plan big ideas to develop into assets   Develop the big ideas that you’ll turn into individual stories. Creative brainstorming is a viable technique for initial ideation.
  Determine optimal story packaging and distribution options Plan how your stories will play out over time, how to build story components for the entire audience journey, and consider content mapping techniques to determine which distribution formats and channels to use.

Updated from a July 2021 post.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

منبع: https://contentmarketinginstitute.com/articles/create-flexible-content-plan-results/